Interview with Sebastian Lutgert

“Intellectual Property is the oil of the 21st century,” claimed Mark Getty, chairman of Getty Images, one of the largest Intellectual Proprietors of the world. It was in response to this view of “owning” a rather intangible and hallucinatory kind of property that two Berlin based artists- Jan Gerber and Sebastian Lutgert developed a unique kind of movie database called 0xdb.org, based on the idea that file sharing can be used not only be used to download films but also to conduct text searches within films and contextualize the different kinds of data that search engines might gather. They have also been instrumental behind the collaborative project titled Pad.ma – an online archive of densely annotated video texts that was launched in Mumbai in 2009. 

We spoke to Sebastian Lutgert at the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore and explored the ideas behind many of his projects and also why there is an urgent need to develop multiple perspectives on the discourses around information, ownership and authorship. 

Question: How did the idea for a film archive emerge?

SL: Just about three years ago we noticed with a friend of mine in Berlin that we were actually downloading a lot of movies. And the product was that this growing archive was actually emerging. Both of us felt this sort of an anxiety at being private archivists. What would we do with this huge collection now? Would we be on the path to collect this huge collection, like people collect stamps? But we decided no that would not be the way. It was a scary thought that we would be maintaining excel sheets and looking at this collection once in a while, feeling happy.

The archive has to be a tool for means of production and in the case of movie archive that’s what one had to do logically- not just open it up and circulate it amongst friends, but run a cinema, because that is what this archive could enable one to do.

And so we started in the summer of 2004 and at that point we were still not aware that it would become a series actually.

But more than a 100 people came the first screening and then it was quite clear that we were doing something called the Pirate Cinema Berlin. And that this would be a longer series of events and in spite of interruptions it went on for three years…with about a 100 screenings in the normal mode- weekly screenings on a Sunday in a place that we have in Berlin.

This is probably not so easy in other cities- places that we can rent ourselves for stuff of this kind. So the basic rule of Pirate Cinema was quite simple- that we would only screen downloaded films, films that we had gotten from the internet and the visitors to the screenings could copy film. We would initially give away DVDs. Then people started coming with hard drives and their laptops. And the third rule was that we would have a good program.

And relying on Bit Torrent and relying on file sharing and P2P networks gave us access to this enormous distributive network that is great for doing cinema.

In a place like Berlin it is extremely difficult to do a kind of program that you want to do because of license fees, copyright issues or even because films are unavailable, whereas this (pirate cinema) approach demonstrated this insane quantity and quality as well as focus when it comes to films.

So obviously Pirate Cinema is not just cinema but cinema about intellectual property which is quite strange because it tries to show films which are otherwise inaccessible or expensive and on the other hand tried to make visible the changes that were occurring in the property relations that were coming about in films…the actual benefits of the P2P networks outside the legal framework of films distribution.

The important thing was to show or look at films that addressed the issue of IP by disrespecting them or finding approaches that developed unusual perspectives on the general IP confrontations.

So Pirate Cinema was obviously about films. But we also talked about what we perceived as the crisis of traditional cinema which is not just to say Hollywood is making films that I don’t like and that is because of this order of production, though that may be true to a certain extent but that is not really the point.

For example it is about something quite trivial which is about the cinema of the space. We noticed when we were downloading more and more films that the cinema of the space was becoming less and less attractive. It was almost such a hostile space compared to what we could do in our own organized space.

In the sense the cinema hall, for me the film ended even before it began when the copyright and anti piracy ads started.

So the people who were paying to watch these films were confronted with these idiotic stupid and outrageous kinds of clips of what constitutes a pirate, who benefits from piracy, who suffers etc.

So there are these stories of small producers, technicians whose jobs would be lost because of piracy. And instantly it was clear that the problems were quite something else- posed by a globalized economy or lack of organization or loan system in the US that made their lives miserable and not that people were downloading movies.

It also doesn’t make sense to argue that if you say that cinema in its current form of distribution is going down, you would have a hard time arguing that just because a segment of the industry has ceased to exist that is reason for fundamentally changing or fundamentally outlawing large parts of our information structure. This is exactly what is being essentially proposed- that this kind of trafficking of copyrighted material on the internet would have to be regulated a lot more to become safe for proprietary content production.

And this seemed to us to be the most main occupation of proprietary cinema- to make sure that people never copy and are made aware of the consequences.

Make sure that this DVD doesn’t play in this region code or that make sure that you can’t copy certain files which to us seemed actually contrary to what cinema had started out to be: the project to make things visible, to make movingimagescirculate.

And these things were hardly talked about, so Pirate Cinema gave us the occasion to actually to both engage in that discourse of IP and cinema in the age of digital reproduction and on the other hand do something very practical which is like running a bar, running a space which acts like a meeting point for different people who want to watch different films.

Question: What kind of participation did you get? Who were the people interested in the outcome of this project? 

SL: In fact after running pirate cinema, for a while many people were journalists, directors etc or people who worked in films.

Certain senior filmmakers dismissed file sharing as jeopardising their professions, but even then they did not give their full support because after all pirate cinema as an operation is still illegal and we are taking a certain risk by running it and so it depends if one wants to associate with it or not.

I think it is quite evident in India there are many who watch pirated DVDs for instance but compared to Europe, the percentage of people who would hesitate to download films off the internet is relatively small. Even in Germany you can be sure that many people engage in heavy file sharing. It is just that it is not being done in public. Pirate cinema was an attempt to say look this is what it is and it is actually beneficial actually makes films accessible to a larger number of people.

Especially in an environment where every stupid, banal technological advancement is hailed as the advent of something that we have never seen, that this kind of a technological advancement is something that people admire, this huge network of a globally linked film archive at the disposal of anyone who has a fast internet connection to us it seemed that this also deserved some prize.

It is definitely to be engaged against Digital Rights Management or against the current regime of Intellectual Property that was the core idea of Pirate Cinema, means that it has to include a celebration of systems where none of these systems govern.

Question: The name Pirate Cinema- how did you come up with that?

SL: We actually wanted to give it the name of what it really stands for…so instantly evident to people.

The use of the term piracy or pirate is a bit like the US hip hop when people refer to each other as Niggers. This term was invented, then it was against you and then taken up and given a different meaning. Even though, the pirate is a bit of both, it is rich in its reference to the notion of actual piracy, even though that in the end is so different from circumventing copyright control and distributing data that it has its limits.

I would hence want to use the notion of pirate, but in a different context. As a notion it would describe a specific approach to information exchange and technology and I would rather try to do it or to develop it in kind of long but also in opposition to openness. The open, and the free and the pirate. How the pirate would relate to the open and the free. The free and the open have gone ahead, but there is a lot of reservation about the politics of the pirate. How can you shed light on it that would make piracy desirable- a fashionable persona?

Question: A form of resistance perhaps?

SL: Of course it is a form of resistance. Actually once you create something you resist. And in this case once you stop your habits, just because there are laws that are being passed or more generally a discourse that is being established that redefines your normal occupation as something as stealing, theft etc.., then just by continuing with it becomes an act of resistance. Even though it is not resistance on the political level but still it can be understood as a social movement, less defensive and less boring and more chances of success than many other social movements.

Question: Tell us something about the hype with Textz.com

SL: Was a website that I started around 2000. It was a website that listed a large number of texts and offered them for download a bit like Pirate Cineme that once you notice you have a collection the point is not to consolidate it for yourself but to open it up and make it accessible.

One day I saw that the domain was available and I thought that someone has to do it so I did it. Back in that time, shortly after Napster it was a different age of file sharing and copyright infringement.

Even though it was an insanely simple idea- just putting texts on the webpage in a relatively short period of time and smaller in comparison to Project Gutenber, people were very enthusiastic about it. In Pirate Cinema we put films that we liked and that seemed top be a slightly different criteria than many others.

It was not just theory- it was not just English language but a combination of thing- so stuff about IP, literature, critical theory- things that would not appear together in this form that probably made it more enjoyable than things that were just legally available.

So overtime textz.com became quite popular. Of course it was a risky undertaking since majority of the texts were copyright protected. In 2002 there was a change of events that was quite funny. A book was published by quite a famous German novelist and the novel was accused of being anti-Semitic stereotyped which did not surprise me much because the novelist had always been right wing author a person who stressed that the Germans had suffered enough from the Holocaust and they need to move on.

And then the publishing house started to say that no- all these allegations are false and the daily newspaper said this is anti-semitic and the character was modelled on a German-Jewish literary critic. It turned nasty.

And then the publishing house started to mail around the PDF, the complete book actually to journalists so that they could have a look at it and say that it was completely unjustified. To their great surprise the book was all over the place, the blogs carried links, and then they sent lawyers and tried to retract it somehow but it was impossible.

Then I put it on texts.com called viarza.pdf (Viarza is the author) and 48 hours later I was in New York at that time and got a email from a Munich Law firm, saying that this is in violation of copyright and you can be fined up to 50000 euros and for the delivery of this email we will be charging 1100 euros and we will also file a complaint with a court in Munich because I or you…they were not very clear as to who they were addressing, had said on a public forum that the author of this book is an asshole.

So I thought I wouldn’t obviously pay them but I thought why not do something productive. So I wrote something called Viarza.php which was a php script and actually generates the full text of the novel. I published it under the GPL so it was open source. All it would do was if you run it, it would print out the whole novel.

And I never heard back from the lawyers who could not get the concept at all of what was going on.

I mean this is Germany’s most renowned publishing house and we have a lot of their publications on textz.com- Adorno for example.

And then for this book German authors bashing a Jewish critic and I thought what is wrong with these people. They are just one click away from Adorno’s complete works.

And I am pretty sure that this actually set off a further chain of events when the actual intellectual proprietor of critical theory (Adorno, Walter Benjamin).

Jan Philipp Remetsma very wealthy German philanthropist who founded an institute and bought the rights to all of Adorno’s and Benjamin’s unpublished texts. He had Hamburg’s most expensive IP law firm send me a cease and desist letter to take down Adorno’s texts that were on the site and also wanted a few thousand euros from me.

I believe that property comes with certain responsibilities and in this case he was operating outside the boundaries of responsibility because he had obviously not understood what the Internet was all about. And the main point was that especially as a proprietor of Benjamin he had lost out the property with this act of his.

And I got a letter saying that since I didn’t give the money, I should go to jail for it.

At that point I thought that going to jail for copying Adorno is so bizarre that as an intellectual proprietor of Benjamin he should rethink. He is a strange persona- one of the richest Germans- sees himself as the main authority and slightly paranoid. So now I have developed something where I do not host texts any more but just visual representations of book covers but I have written a computer program that will transcode all of these covers in to texts.

Just as a TV serial has seasons, pirate cinema has seasons so whenever we did Pirate Cinema, it was a commitment to be in Berlin for a long period of time a year or something and do it week by week. But it was not just the seriality, the fact that it repeats, but the quality of the program. Thoughts develop overtime and audiences too develop overtime so the point was to do it week by week.

So right now we are rethinking of what works to host in Pirate Cinema, because to a large extent we have already made visible the possibilities that exist.

But it is fun to run such a kind of space and there is a need to run such unofficial spaces that are in their approach so explicit about cinema and the intellectual property approach that cinema operates in.

Jan and I have also been involved in the production of archives. So we have written software to make films fully searchable, have full text search for dialogues, make preview scenes available, that then later became the 0xdb.com.

0xdb tries to develop a small set of tools, vocabulary …formulas as to how you would make videos accessible online.

We have been working overtime with people who actually run Bit Torrent trackers, people who run pirate bay and the other smaller trackers. There is obviously now a lot of discussion as to how to maintain the infrastructure, archiving software etc.

Question: Why did you call it 0xdb?

SL: There are different theories. I mean if you write a hexadecimal number, then 0xdb is the number 219. So it whatever you make out of it. Some people have also observed that 0 and the X is the actually the skull and bone of the pirate and hence pirate cinema and that maybe another explanation. Who knows?

Question: What were your criteria for choosing films?

SL: We chose films that we liked and thought were interesting. It was obviously centred on Western films because of their availability. But over all it is about creating proximity, making connections between works that are miles apart and leaving out things that are obvious.

It just happened that at that time in the late 90s I became aware of the discourses around intellectual property and I found them plain stupid, retarded and obscene that you could control culture through rights management.

The only way to find protection is to not produce a film but to leave the screen blank. I really thought that there is a utopian potential that is there in taking up this position that can be practically realised later. In the end, it is also all for myself. I couldn’t work in a restrictive IP environment.

But it has been difficult…if you value autonomy you have to work that much harder.

There is this guy I know and he is the admin of a very great Bit Torrent tracker and I actually know him through chats and he is this expert, who knows everything and has seen everything. He has not just informed opinions of films but he is like a cinephile. He was interested in becoming a computer programmer then came to know that file sharing protocols existed and only at that point started his love for cinema- completely through technology and through being a programmer.

For me it is somewhat similar.I was always interested in certain films and certain directors, but the moment it became exciting was when it became accessible.

Question: Does it change the way people will now watch films in Berlin?

SL: Yes, not only watch but also change the way films are distributed, produced and hopefully now change the way cinema can make meaningful contributions topeople’s lives.

I think the way the distinction between producer and consumer is flattening out is actually beneficial. It allows for cinemas that make you productive again and that is the whole point about Bit Torrent-obviously you can’t consume so much you wanted even if you wanted to, but you can download stuff for your own production and modify.

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