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In Support of Piracy

Is it OK to break the law in a situation you consider unjust? That is a question which I have covered a few times in the past and my conclusion has been that people should do what they consider is the right thing whether that agrees with the law or not. It’s a philosophy I follow and it can be controversial, of course.

There are two considerations which need to be applied here though. The first is that most laws are reasonably fair and because we have to peacefully co-exist with other people we should usually follow them just so that society works smoothly. And the second is that if an individual does choose to ignore the law they should expect there to be consequences. So breaking a law might lead to a person being punished but that doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person.

In fact breaking the law is sometimes the only moral thing to do, and those people who do it should be admired rather than vilified. A recent local case involving a doctor helping his terminally ill mother to die peacefully (at her own request) lead to him being found guilty of a crime, but most people (although certainly not all) admired him for his courage instead of condemning him for breaking the law.

The same applies to many legal issues associated with the internet. To many people piracy is a reaction to a perceived injustice, and while some activities of this sort are possibly illegal (the actual legal status of some of them is uncertain) they aren’t always necessarily wrong.

The recent situation where New Zealand police attacked the mansion of internet “entrepreneur” Kim Dotcom – jumping out of helicopters and brandishing automatic weapons like a bunch of crazed ninjas who have watched too many American crime movies – is a classic case. If there was ever a case of an over-reaction and a huge waste of police time and money, this was it.

It seems certain there was pirated material on Megaupload’s servers but there is similar material on many other servers around the world. And why do people feel the need to pirate material of this sort anyway? Because the way things work now is unfair and set up almost entirely for the benefit of big corporations. I think most people would prefer to buy movies and music at a reasonable price, in a reasonable way, and knowing that a reasonable proportion of the price goes back to the original artist, but none of this happens with the existing model.

The recording industry, instead of trying to use the internet to give the consumer a fair deal, simply tries to block the inevitable changes by lobbying governments (mainly in the US but even here in New Zealand too) to make laws which support their antiquated business model.

But attempts at blocking piracy haven’t been conspicuously successful anyway. When a law of that type was introduced here the amount of peer to peer traffic on the internet in New Zealand dropped significantly but the amount of secure proxy traffic increased, showing people just bypassed detection by using different technologies.

The evidence is that people will buy material if it is priced and distributed fairly. Apple’s music and app stores are a classic example but there are even better models where large corporations are bypassed completely. An American comedian recently made a million dollars by distributing his work on the internet. The file was available for free but he appealed to peoples’ sense of fairness and asked for a $5 payment. It obviously worked!

Try buying a DVD and compare the experience. First, you must find a store stocking it, then you need to find one which is the right region (is that region system the stupidest idea ever or what?), then you have to pay a price which means only a small fraction goes to the orignal artist, then you must sit through some tedious message about piracy before watching the movie.

Do the corporations not realise that the only people seeing those anti-piracy messages are legitimate buyers because the pirates always strip them out! How unbelievably stupid can they be? But that’s the problem: these people are both clueless and immoral. They sort of deserve to have their business destroyed.

The argument that artists, such as musicians and movie makers, lose because of piracy is partly true because there will be some material not being purchased that they would get payment for otherwise. But it’s not really that simple.

Assuming that every pirated movie represents a loss of income – as the industry has suggested – is dishonest. Most of those pirated movies would never have been bought by the person who pirated them so they represent no real loss.

And most of the material is mainstream stuff from commercially successful artists. Losing a little bit of income isn’t really going to harm them too much because they have so much already.

And finally, if the big media corporations can be destroyed by internet distribution then the artists will win in the end because they will be free from their control.

So piracy is often illegal and it certainly has doubtful moral value, but pretending it is the greatest threat to modern culture is just a self-serving myth invented by the big corporations growing rich from the current model without really contributing anything. Kim Dotcom is certainly no model for good ethical behaviour but he’s not the ultimate example of evil either.

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