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There has been a great deal of discussion and a very good book written about the rise of Internet piracy and the dilemma that this creates for businesses operating in a digital age.

The photograph above is of my son and I standing in front of a mural that I was commissioned to paint by a community centre in Stockwell. Almost 20 years on it’s probably the piece of artwork that I’m proudest of. Following on from my last wander down memory lane, I thought I’d explore the theme of piracy by sharing the tale of this image.

First, a little scene setting: It was the start of the 1990’s and a new wave of Black Consciousness was sweeping both sides of the Atlantic. Malcolm X was back in vogue thanks to rap groups such as Public Enemy. Spike Lee was challenging audiences to ‘Do The Right Thing’. Meanwhile fashion labels such as FUBU (For Us, By Us) were affirming a new African centred identity.

The intellectual underpinning for this movement was inspired by the writings of Cheikh Anta Diop, Molefi Asante, and Maulana Karenga. Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, gave these ideas additional religious fervor. As a young man growing up in the midst of all this, the words of Tracy Chapman summed it up. We were ‘Talking Bout A Revolution’.

The mural is a reflection of this moment in time. Based on the map of Africa, it featured black heroes from Queen Nefertiti to Queen Latifah. At the centre, a Benin Mask and the Soul II Soul logo merge together to illustrate the past and present coming together.

The image was supposed to inspire people and based on the feedback, it seemed that it did. The mural became so popular I agreed that a poster could be produced and sold to fund a trip to Egypt for a group of young people. One of the leaders at the centre said she knew someone who could produce the posters cheaply, but that turned out to be a big mistake.

‘Stan’ was the man in question. He was responsible for running the bootleg poster operation that proliferated in London at that time. You couldn’t pass a busy street corner without seeing an array of reproduced Athena posters for sale at bargain prices. When I raised concerns that my picture might be similarly ripped-off, I was assured that this wouldn’t happen because Stan wouldn’t dare cross his own community, as he knew what the consequences would be.

In the event, if Stan did know, he didn’t care, because posters with the Africa image on it soon began appearing all over London. Unsurprisingly this sparked outrage. Feelings were running so high that a few ‘brothers’ were sent to have ‘words’ with Stan. This led to a large quantity of posters being retrieved and promises that no more would be printed. However after a few weeks, more posters began appearing on the streets.

But something else happened. Among a certain set of people I became (almost) famous – or at least my picture did. Stan’s distribution network was far more extensive than I could have imagined. As a result the image cropped up in all sorts of places, from inner-city street corners to suburban offices. A friend spotted it on TV hanging on the wall of an architect’s home in New York. My brother found a reproduction in a street market in Switzerland.

The bootlegged copies didn’t entirely kill the market for the legitimate ones either. As the unauthorized prints were unsigned, the limited edition of 500 was sold to those who were willing to pay extra for a signed copy.

Although this episode took place before the widespread adoption of the Internet, you can see similar effects taking place on a much larger scale today. For example the number 1 book on the Amazon bestseller list ‘Go The F**k To Sleep’ was widely pirated before publication, something that the author attributes in part to its success.

I only ever met Stan once, in a council flat in Greenwich that served as a base for his bootlegging operations. I have no idea what happened to him, or if he got his comeuppance in the end. But if I did meet him again I’m not sure what I’d say. Perhaps it should be ‘Thanks’.

Comments welcome

6 thoughts on “How Pre-Internet Piracy Made Me (Almost) Famous

  1. Really interesting story Jon – i had no idea that you are a talented artist. A few things:

    Where can i get a copy of the image, I really like it?

    Would Obama be on a modern version or does he no longer represent hope?

    If ‘Stan’ hadn’t of ‘pirated’ my sense is that someone else would have. Street sellers have been bootlegging posters for decades.

    In this modern digital era would you have given your work a Creative Commons license?

    • Thanks for your comments Josh. In answer to your points:

      1. I’ve got a couple of spare copies somewhere. Remind me to look for one when we next catch up.

      2. If I were painting it today Obama would have definitely featured in it. No matter what people say of his record in power, just getting elected was a phenomenal achievement that deserves recognition.

      3. I agree. Bootlegging must be nearly as old as the oldest profession.

      4. I’ve never been interested in making money out of the image, which is why I was happy for the profits from the posters to go towards funding the young people’s trip to Egypt (they made it out there in the end).

      Also it’s worth noting that most of images in the mural are my interpretations of other people’s photographs or illustrations. In this sense, the work is a true mash-up. So if I’d done it today, I would have released it under a creative commons license.

  2. Mate – that is an absolutely awesome post. I had no idea you were an artist. I know that piece well but not sure if I have seen the original or a rip off poster in Europe now!

  3. @jakwue

    A Creative Commons license (CC-by-SA) would be great. Why can’t the work be licensed again today? Opportunity is being ceded. Such a share-alike (commercial) license would lead to many “open content” remixes/art and interesting offshoot commerce. In all cases, this would have a legit framework that would point back to the original and encourage (“require”) those adding to similarly open up in kind. This is rich for culture.

    “Remixes” could include stories, animations, related songs, fictional characters (think Marvel comics), etc.

    Another great idea would be to reach out to all the pirates (like Stan) to offer endorsement if they can manage to get revenues contributed. This would create friendships (and a great story) and help promote open content licenses and collaboration. It would increase the money sent over your way.

    This sort of collaboration is important in order for small individuals to be able to be a part of huge things that otherwise only large corporations could afford to create (eg, a feature film using takes shot around the world, interesting special effects, and great music).

    Good luck.

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