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In Defence of Pirates

December 26, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Because I work with computers I know a lot of people who download material from the internet which might technically be copyrighted – in which case you might call those people pirates. The most common material I have seen downloaded this way is music, movies and computer software.

Of course the big corporations who make a lot of money out of distributing this sort of material don’t like it and there are various schemes, which have varying levels of effectiveness, to try to stop it. Depending on who you listen to the “problem” might be getting better or worse, but I want to ignore that and talk about whether it is a good or bad thing, and if it is a bad thing, how bad.

I heard a podcast recently which presented some arguments against piracy and I want to respond to them here, because I don’t think most of them are valid. Note that I’m not encouraging people to go out and break copyright laws, but I’m not condemning anyone who does either!

The first argument I hear is what is the difference between taking a music track for free from the internet and taking an item, such as an iPod, from a retail store?

People who condemn piracy will say the two are the same but clearly they aren’t. Anyone who steals a physical object has taken something with a real value, and when it is gone that value is also gone. By copying a song no real value has gone because the “owner” of the song has physically lost nothing.

You might say that a value can be placed on each copy of the song, or each time it is played, or using some other criteria, but that is an artificial and arbitrary value with little relevance to the actual objective value of the object (and in fact there is no object because it is only information which has been copied).

Another argument is that musicians, film makers, software developers, etc rely on income from their material to survive and by taking that income less material will be produced.

Well I see no sign of that. I don’t see a lot of musicians changing their career to accountancy because they can’t make money from songs, for example. And companies with little copy protection in place (such as Apple on their operating system) are doing as well or better than those with silly protection schemes which inconvenience real customers (such as Microsoft).

Sometimes the point is made that pirates justify their illegal actions by using convoluted rationalisations such as “musicians want their music to be heard” or “music corporations are evil” or “I am just liberating the music”.

Actually, although the actual words might not be the best, the sentiment behind these is absolutely true. Many musicians actually do want their music heard by as many people as possible. Big music corporations are evil. And making an important part of our culture free is a form of liberation in some sense. So maybe those are rationalisations, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true.

Here’s another rationalisation (which may or may not be true): music (or movies or software) is far too expensive and if it cost a bit less people would be prepared to pay for it.

You might say that just because something costs too much that doesn’t give you the right to take it for free, but maybe it does. Prices will only come down if they are forced down by some new model. Since the big corporations won’t play fair maybe the consumer has to force them to change by being “unfair”.

And there is good anecdotal evidence that reducing pricing does encourage more people to actually pay. Software stores, like Apple’s app store, provide software very cheaply and I know many people now who just buy stuff there instead of going to the trouble of pirating it. If a program costs $20 many people will just buy it when at $200 they might not.

Another point often made is this: when you pay for music most of the money goes to useless parasites. One estimate gave the following break down for the cost of a US$12 CD: $2 to record company profits and executive salaries, $1.10 for manufacturing, $0.80 to the performer (some estimates are as low as $0.41), $0.65 to the songwriter, and the rest to managers, lawyers, accountants, distribution, etc.

In fact the return on music sales is so little to the artist that many rely on live performances and related products to make money. If they do this then getting as much music as possible to the public (even if it’s free) is surely a good thing.

Here’s something which actually makes me want to pirate movies: when I play a DVD or Blu-Ray which I have bought I often have to watch a tedious advertisement on the evils of piracy. The person who has pirated the movie has this stripped out and doesn’t see it! So only legitimate buyers are lectured about piracy! This more than anything else shows the absolute stupidity of the music companies.

And another similar issue: purchased movies on disk can only be played by players with the correct region. This is a constant problem on computers. Pirated movies have this region stuff stripped out. Again, only the legitimate buyer is inconvenienced.

Finally there’s this ultimate argument: if you don’t like the distribution model you don’t have to listen to the music, watch the movie, or use the software. Again I think this is a false argument. These things are important parts of our culture which have been hijacked by big corporations. They have no right to control them and I don’t think that argument holds as a result.

So piracy is still illegal, but laws are made by politicians being pressured by big companies, so that’s not necessarily important. All I will say is that maybe those pirates aren’t as bad as many people think!

  1. OJB
    December 26, 2013 at 5:39 am

    Coincidentally, just as I posted this entry I saw this: Iron Maiden makes millions by touring countries where their music is most pirated.

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