Let’s Talk About Piracy

Stealing is wrong. You know that, I know that. I really know that. I have an almost pathological inability to steal. Once, when I was about eight, I went into a convenience store with my mom. We grabbed some snacks, and as we got ready to check out, I grabbed a 25 cent stick of gum. However, I don’t think my mom nor the clerk saw this, and as we walked out, I left wondering if I had just stolen something.

To this day I’m not sure if I stole this or not, but at the same, I’ve more than repaid the location with ‘tips’ and the like.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I had nightmares about stealing and jail and moral condemnation to hell and who knows what else. I freaked out a little bit. The next time I was in that stores, I tried to give the clerk my money, as a tip, but she wouldn’t accept it from a little kid. She didn’t know I was trying to right such a great universal wrong, and I wasn’t going to say I stole something, because I didn’t even know if I did in the first place. It’s been twenty years, but I still feel guilty and morose over a potential 25cent piece of gum.

Stealing, then, is unquestionably wrong. Piracy, for some reason, doesn’t have the same moral weight behind it.

It started with music, as I’m sure it did with virtually everyone in my generation. Napster came out, the first file-sharing program specifically for music. You could get almost any song for free! Just find it, download it and go. When you had the song, you could then share it with other people, letting them experience the good stuff as well! It’s win-win!

Except, of course, the music industry didn’t see it that way. They saw file sharing as stealing, full stop … even though a form of this had been around forever. You could always take your cassette tape recorder and record a song from the radio. You could even make copies for your friends if you wanted. Nobody really cared about this, though, because it required a lot of effort and usually had much inferior quality.

Things got better with the advent of CDs. You could rip and burn songs with virtually the same quality, assuming you had a half-decent CD burner. You also had complete control over the song selection, and you could arrange them in any order you wanted. Creating a mixed tape was now very easy, and you could share them with friends!

This was glorious, and I created many different custom CDs in my day. That said, there were downsides. You needed to have a song before you could burn it to a CD. You can’t put a song on a CD if you don’t have that song. Also, once burned, most CDs couldn’t re-upload those songs. That is, if I created my own custom CD and gave it to you, you wouldn’t be able to load those songs on your computer. Maybe you can now, but back in the day, I experienced a lot of frustration with exactly this point.

Failed CD burns typically became coasters, as in something to place your drink on.

Anyway, even though CDs greatly boosted the quality of pirated music, still nobody really cared. People needed to buy a CD to make copies, and if people were buying CDs then the music industry was happy. File-sharing completely changed this. Only one person needed to have a song, and then that song could spread to the rest of the Internet-connected world.

This was, of course, the tipping point, even though in theory not much had changed from the early days. People had always shared bootlegged music, but now it was brain-dead easy. In fact, it was actually easier to pirate a copy of a song or an album than to actually buy that album. Think about it: drive to the CD store (wow, those don’t exist anymore, do they?), pay $20+ dollars for ultimately only one or two songs you actually want, or you could go to your computer, type in the name of that one song and get that one song free. It’s no contest.

When it comes to piracy, this is really the heart of the issue. If it is easier to be a pirate, then people will be pirates. It’s that simple. If I have to spend a lot of money and go out of way to get something, or I can spend no money and do almost nothing, then my choice has already been made. This is true even though, sometimes, you’ll go to download a song but get a virus instead. That sucks, but it’s still better than buying music legally.

This is apparently a virus … or something. At the very least, it’s an image that popped up when I searched ‘computer virus.’

At this point, usually someone will pipe up and say, “Who cares if it’s easier, it’s still wrong.” Is it? What do we mean? Something can be against the law but not morally wrong, or wrong in any other sense. Legally, jaywalking is illegal, but most people have no qualms, ethically or otherwise, about crossing the street. In Canada, the legal drinking age is 19, and yet again the vast majority of people start drinking before then. Is that a crime? Is that wrong?

More to the point, the music industry wasn’t worried about the ethics of stealing, they were worried about their own obscene profits. The main argument at the time was that if piracy went unchecked, then the music industry would completely collapse and no new music would be produced. As history showed, that wasn’t the case. Yes, some peoples and studios lost their jobs, but the music industry remains a billion dollar industry, even with piracy still as easy as ever.

This actually makes for an interesting case study of sorts. When dealing with piracy, you can do it in two fundamental ways. One, you can just attack them head on. One of the major record labels sued a little girl for thousands of dollars because she uploaded a song to the Internet.  The idea, of course, was to scare potential downloaders that you could be next. In practice, it mostly led to ridicule, especially since the black market makes counterfeit and knockoff material that damage both artist and consumer, yet no ink every seems to get spilled by that.

A similar example happens with videogames, another popular pirated medium. In order to stop pirating, developers have put in more and more restrictions. The classic example would be EA’s SimCity, a frankly terrible game that included an always-online component. You could only play the game with an Internet connection. If your Internet went down or had a hiccup, you just got kicked off. If the EA servers get attacked or go down for maintenance, you can’t play.

What’s that? You want to play the game you legally purchased? Well, screw you!

These are, frankly, massive restrictions, as it’s fully possible that you’ve payed full price for a game that, in some circumstances, you cannot play. If you pirated the game instead, though, and hacked away the always-online component, you actually had a better gameplay experience. That’s not a good way to fight pirating. In fact, adding in anti-piracy components that restrict legitimate purchasers is about the worst way to fight piracy possible.

The second possibility, and frankly the better way, is to beat the pirates at their own game. Look at iTunes, Loudr and virtually every other online music distributor. For a small fee, you can get virtually any song you want. You get quick, clean and clear service. It’s easier to look up your song on Google Play than it is to find it on a torrent site, and you absolutely know that you are not getting a virus, malmare or any other nasty surprises. If you want the full album, you can get it, and if you only want one song, you get that one song.

It’s clear, it’s easy, it’s transparent; the artists still get money, and you get that warm feeling knowing you are supporting the artists you love. It’s win-win for everyone. Are people still pirating music? Yes, of course, because there will always be pirates. However, there are far less pirates than when you still tried to sell $24 CDs and sued little girls.

And that’s actually the big point: there needs to be piracy. If there is no alternative, then companies can charge whatever they want and you’re out of luck. The CEO wins and everyone else loses. Piracy acts as a natural deterrent, a counter-balance. If you set your price too unreasonably high, then your profits will be destroyed by pirates. Of course, too low and you lose money as well. You thus need to find that happy middleground, a price that most people are willing to pay.

With the music industry, what piracy really revealed in the early 2000s wasn’t that everyone would steal given the chance, as some pessimistic people tried to say at the time. Really, it showed that the music industry had been gouging people for years, setting a price far higher than most people felt fair. Piracy allowed the market to correct itself. If you look at music prices today, they are far lower, especially when you add in inflation. We can thank piracy for that. See, everyone wins!

I suppose, technically, I think pirating is wrong. At the same time, price gouging is undoubtedly wrong. If the wrong of pirating can correct the greater wrong of price gouging, then it becomes right, or at least leads to the right outcome. It’s perhaps more complicated than that, but in the end, while I always condemn the man who steals a physical object from someone else, I can’t get the same moral outrage over pirating online music or games.

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