Thursday, May 3, 2012

Piracy: To Arrrrrg or not to Arrrrrg?

This is going to be a little different. There really is not that much technical about this discussion; it's far more ethical than anything else. But I would really like to get my thoughts out on paper (er, pixel) and maybe even get some other people's opinions.

Piracy: Definition

First I feel like I should be clear on what I believe "piracy" is. Piracy is the act of obtaining that which you have not paid for. Simple as that. To me, there is a crucial distinction between that definition and just "downloading music/movies/etc". This is where it gets kind of hazy because from my perspective it's not simply a black-and-white issue. For example, if I happen to hear about a music CD that is no longer sold*, I will download it via torrent without a moment's hesitation; if I would like to buy their content but they are no longer offering it, I really don't have an ethical problem with obtaining it some other way. (There have actually been songs that were not being bought so I downloaded, then the artists released an album of B-sides which I immediately bought.)

*without DRM

Another example: what if I buy a crap ton of music from a certain music store that (at least at one time) did not let you re-download the music that you already paid for, and then your computer crashes and you lose it all. Is it wrong to download all the music that you have already spent money on, or should you have to re-buy them? It's kind of a tricky question to me. If you draw a parallel between MP3s and CDs, if your CDs get lost or damaged, you do have to buy them again. The record store does not owe you an obligation to replace any CDs that you might lose. The problem with this reasoning -and a lot of reasoning either for or against piracy- is that MP3s are not CDs; that digital is not physical. They are different medians, different commodities, and different rules should apply.

Video games (Steam)

I am a Steam subscriber and I love the Steam service. In addition to their crazy sales, they also do something unique: they sell licenses to games, not the games themselves. You create an account with them and then when you buy a game, you don't get a ZIP file in exchange, it is credited to your account. It says "This guy owns Left4Dead." It's not about the files, it's about the ownership. That's why I can download it as many times as I want on as many computers as I want, as long as it is me playing it. I own the game, not the files. In a sense, I own the essence. When there are updates, I get them. I kind of own the "idea" of Left4Dead, and the files are just a manifestation of that.

But a lot of people don't like Steam for two different reasons: (1) according to the Steam EULA, what I just said is extremely true. You don't actually own the games at all. You only own the licenses. If you do something against Valve's rules, they can literally revoke your account and you will lose all your games on their service. That sucks and is stupid, I will not deny that. And (2), Steam games have DRM.


Now normally, I loathe DRM (which I will talk about more in a moment), but the reason that I don't mind DRM in Steam because of....well, what I just said. Steam sells you the license to a game, and in exchange, they want to make sure that only you are using that license. It's a tradeoff, and a tradeoff that I personally think is worth it.

Music DRM, on the other hand, was selling you the MP3 with DRM. If you lose the MP3, you're screwed, but the file is also weighed down because it can only be played in specific players and devices. It is literally lessening the value of the commodity with no gain whatsoever to the consumer. Furthermore, games are different than MP3s because a game is the commodity by itself; sure you need the Steam client, but they can't be played on various devices and in various players like MP3s can. (Plus, there's the fact that games are about $50 a pop, music is $1 a song. It makes a tad more sense to DRM a game, at least from my eyes.)

And the main real reason I am a Steam subscriber is: trust. A lot of people act like you shouldn't ever trust companies, but I don't. Trust is a part of the customer-company relationship and to me, Valve has always proven to be trustworthy. I think I should reward them for that and if it also happens to mean getting games for under $5, well, that would be fine too.

Formats (Movies, TV, Video Games, etc)

 One of the things that still bugs me is formats; again, from my point of view, that which is digital is become more and more about a license and less about the medium it comes on. So if I buy a movie on DVD, is it ok to rip it to my computer, or do I have to buy the digital copy as well? Or even trippier, if I buy the DVD copy, am I allowed to download the Blu-Ray quality torrent?

To me, the answer is a "yes", simply because of this: it's mine. I bought this disk, and if I want to use it as a coaster, I can. If I want to pick my teeth with it, I can. If I want to rip the data off it to my computer, I can. I find it so funny that ripping MP3s to your computer was considered acceptable for years, but now, ripping DVDs and Blu-Rays is not only discouraged, it's illegal. Nice step backwards, dontcha think?

But that doesn't really answer the other question, if I own the Xbox game, can I torrent the PC version? If I own the physical book, can I download the eBook? I am inclined to answer "Yes", but I have no real reason to argue it. It just begins to tread on dangerous ground; if we take my idea of a license or idea being the commodity and run with it, who is to say where the license starts and stops?


I'll talk more about that later but first I'm going to list some of the excuses that I have run across when I hear people that pirate and then try to justify their piracy.

It's not stealing!
People love to use this one: "It's not stealing, it's sharing!" As I said earlier, digital purchases are different than physical commodities. If I "steal" an apple, the storekeeper has one less apple, but if I "steal" a song, the website doesn't lose anything, but you are stealing. You are taking possession of something that the storekeeper was selling but you did not pay for. You are taking a license that was not purchased. The concept of a digital commodity -something that can be copied and transmitted with little to no cost- is something that is extremely new in the human economy, and it's too different to treat it exactly as anything else. I might talk a little later about how I think digital goods should be controlled, but the point is that they should definitely not be the exact same as physical goods.

"It's a 'victimless crime'. The music industry is corrupt!"
I will agree that the way that the music industry is set up is corrupt. The fact that iTunes gets 30% per song just for hosting the content is ridiculous; they didn't write it, record it, mix it, all they did was throw it on their shelves but they want to take more than a quarter of the pie.

BUT that doesn't mean that you can just do whatever you please. This is not about being some vigilante; you are not Batman for downloading "District 9". You cannot simply break the rules when you think it's unfair and you have the means to do so. If you had the security code to a car lot, you couldn't just go in and take a new BMW just because you think the interest rates they charge are too high. Abusing a flawed system is not the right way to fix it. Granted, this will poke at the industry members and force them to shift to change, but often times the change is for the worse. In the end, though, it comes down to morals. And yes, I realize that I just used the whole "You wouldn't download a car" analogy, but even though the catchphrase is stupid, it does offer a valid point in terms of ethics. The main point is: you cannot simply break the rules just because you don't like them.

"It's too expensive!"
This expands on the previous point: the prices being higher than you'd like does not justify what would otherwise be an ethical no-no. It also brings up a huge problem that I see in people: entitlement. People feel like they are entitled to whatever music they want at a low price. They see it as their right. That's why you'll hear people make excuses like
  • "It's not on Netflix streaming yet" = "I feel as though I should be able to stream anything I want at any time"
  • "if I'm paying $100 a month for cable I should have direct access to any show I want at any time I want" -An actual quote by someone
If you want a perfect example of the first one, take a look at people's reactions to  Netflix's price hike last year. It went from being $10 a month to $16 a month. That is the price of 2 lattes at Starbucks. But people went crazy, saying that they were only going to pirate from then on out and that Netflix was driving people to piracy. So people don't just feel entitled to Netflix's streaming service, they feel entitled to it at a certain price. "I'll pay for entertainment if it's $X, but if it's $Y, I'm going to just going to pirate it." And come on, folks, let's get real here, $6 more a month is not that crazily unreasonable; if you could afford Netflix beforehand, I'm decently sure you'll be able to afford Netflix at $6 more.

The second example is equally as potent: people somehow get a divine revelation that because they pay a certain amount, they should be able to do whatever they want. They set their own rules based on what they think they're entitled to.
"You can support the band in other ways."
I've heard it said that if you really like a band, you can just buy a t-shirt when they go on tour. There are plenty of reasons this makes no sense in the practical world.
  1. Now you're saying that artists need to write their music, record it, give it away for free, then somehow obtain the money for a cross country tour before they make any money.
  2. Bands cannot go everywhere in the world to sell their gear. It's just not possible.
  3. You would have to buy a shirt or poster for every single CD you've ever bought or downloaded. I have 3 Switchfoot shirts, 2 hoodies, a hat and 2 posters but I'd still need to buy one more thing to match the number of CDs I have from them, and that is just one artist. It's just not practical.
Donations is another thing, but I'll get to that in a second.

"I want to see if I like it first"
I am conflicted on this. For some media, it makes sense, and for others, it does not. I listen to music every day for probably around 5 hours usually so some songs I will hear almost every day. They're basically something that is meant to be enjoyed frequently; you buy it because you want to listen to it whenever you want. Movies, on the other hand, are different, in that it's really about the first experience, and then if you really like it and see yourself wanting to watch it fairly frequently (maybe once every few months or even once a year), you'll buy it. Movies and TV are really more of an experience than a commodity.

This is probably the most challenging area to draw a line in. I will admit to "sampling" music before buying it, but I don't do the same with video games. I guess it's just how I see things, but most of the time, I will enjoy a game no matter what. I may not enjoy it as much as I could have, but it will still provide some entertainment. But if I buy a CD that I end out not liking at all, I will just plain never listen to it.

I am aware that this is the most greyish area, and hopefully my opinion of it will become sharpened over time. I also feel like I am being a hypocrite in this area when it comes to software. It's just a difficult point to think about.


But it's not just the pirates that try to negate the other side's compliments; the anti-pirates are even worse. Here are some of the ways that corporations try to fight hollywood.

"Let's sue everyone."
Mother of god, I could spend all day furiously typing at my keyboard about how ridiculously absurd this is. The big corporations have literally sued people -children, even- for over $1,000 a song. I thought court was supposed to get back money that you lost, which would be $1 a song, but 1,000 times that. On top of that, litigation is just the worst type of PR for this. It's trying to rule people through fear, which is the exact opposite of the trust I mentioned earlier with Valve.  You don't feel connected to the music industry, you feel like a cow that they are milking dry and if you ever try to leave the pasture, they shoot you in the face.

"Companies are losing tons of money."
Of all the excuses I've heard, this has got to be the most foolish. That assumes that pirates would buy everything they download, which is complete crap. A lot of people hear one song and then will go and download the whole discography of an artist. Do you think they would do that if they had to pay? Hells no.

On the flip side, though I think it is ridiculous that the other side says "Companies aren't losing any money at all." If 100,000 people pirate a $10 CD and just 1% of those people would have bought it if they could not pirate it, that's still $10,000 lost. Companies lose money, for sure, but not near as much as they would like you to believe.

On top of that, piracy actually does have bonuses for the company. People pirating and using Photoshop help cement it as the industry standard. There's less chance of companies switching over to a different program if the people they hire are already fluent in Photoshop because they pirated it. It's certainly not an excuse, just don't be fooled into the belief that the companies are being completely taken advantage of.

What are you buying?

As I said before, it really is a difficult question, are you buying the movie, or the experience of watching the movie? If it's the latter, does that mean I can pick a VHS of Star Wars out of the 95 cent bin then go home and download the Blu-Ray torrent? At one point do you stretch beyond your basic rights as a consumer and into the self-entitlement I mentioned earlier?

And on a much broader sense, can you copyright an idea? Is there really something called "Intellectual Property" that can be likened to physical property? In a way, it's frightening to look at either direction. If Intellectual Property is the same as physical property, then patent trolls like Microsoft and Oracle can go around protecting the "ideas" of software. UMG can pull a MegaUpload video from Youtube. It basically is very scary business because lawyers become far more important than innovators. But on the other hand, if you say that Intellectual Property does not exist at all, you get Richard Stallman, who wants everybody to be able to download any piece of art, music, movie, TV show, video game, comic, ebook, software, and pretty much everything digital any time they want. As someone who hopes to make software some day and not starve to death, this does not sound good to me. I actually agree with RMS on a lot of his views, but to abolish the concept of Intellectual Property would be extremely detrimental to the market. At least in the capitalism we live in.


About a year ago, a thought occurred to me that really fogged up the argument for me. What about textbooks? I personally think that the textbook system is 10x more corrupt than any entertainment industry. The campus bookstores sell them for 20% more than other stores and buy them back for 10% of what you paid for them. Textbooks are usually at least 5x more expensive than other books; I bought my Linux book for $20 and my Algorithms book went for $110, both are about the same thickness. They update versions of textbooks and change next to nothing, but still require everyone to go out and buy the newest version, obliterating the return selling price of the previous one. And lastly, some classes will require a textbook that you literally will not use the entire semester. I think I have made my point.

This is not entertainment, this is education. This is an extremely corrupt system. This is something that you will only have for about 3 months, which you might not even use. This is something that is extremely overpriced. This is something that will make your life easier (carrying around less textbooks). These are people who you could give a rat's ass about giving money to. This is the perfect example of why someone would pirate.

But is it ethical? If you say yes to that, then you have to say yes to all the other situations I just listed. As hard as it is for me to say it, I would have to say no. Not because I don't want to get free textbooks for all the reasons listed, but because I examine other cases and see that there is a flaw in the reasoning for ones that I am not emotionally invested in.


The most important thing to be concerned with is that everyone should think. I know so many people that pirate music that don't necessarily have a reason to defend it, they just do it because it's free. If you want to download some digital content, whether it be an app, song, game, book, software, etc, you damn sure better have a good reason to justify it, if only for yourself.

I realize that some people would probably call me a hypocrite, and maybe I am, to some extent. "So people can't choose their own entitlement, but you will download a CD if only a DRM'ed copy is available? Doesn't the whole 'you can't break the rules because you're unhappy' deal?" And to a point, they are right. I think there are nuances, like the fact that you can buy a CD and rip MP3s, so why should store-sold copies have DRM on them? But they would be right, and like I said, it's not an easy matter. The only real way to conclusively answer this question is to say that "Pirating is never wrong" or "Pirating is always wrong." I'm not so sure it's that simple.


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