Piracy and morality

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I wanted to watch “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” but none of the local theaters were playing it anymore, I couldn’t buy the Blu-Ray because I don’t have that kind of money, Amazon was empty, and there were no other legitimate channels I could go through. I started going through the less legal parts of the internet, but the streams were slow and every other website wanted me to download some sketchy software or disable AdBlock. Out of necessity, I learned to torrent (I know, I’m getting into the game late. It seems like everyone and their grandmother knew how to torrent before I did). I’ve got only a vague idea of how the actual mechanics work, but what’s clear is that the material I download is illegal. It’s pirated. It’s technically stolen, because I’m getting it for free.

I don’t feel much guilt about it. I already made an effort to pay for the material, but since I couldn’t, well. I’m sure Marvel and Disney are making plenty of money off the movie already. Even if I did pay for it, my contribution would be just a drop in the bucket. I pirated the material, but I got to watch it in relatively good quality and for free. It’s a pretty good deal on my part, but what about the people that actually own the movie?

Piracy has been painted as the worst thing to have ever hit the music and movie industries, but that’s just hype. This is the digital age, and that means that no data is safe if it’s ever touched the internet. Every day, millions of songs and movies are downloaded without payment to the source. The industry’s vocal complaints about piracy make sense, but only to a point. Piracy may damage profits slightly, but it also provides publicity, which leads to actual buying of the material.

Copyright law says that it’s illegal to download material without the permission of the owner, but in reality, the music and movie industries have no reliable way to enforce this, especially since a large portion of the sites that provide the illegal downloads are foreign and not subject to U.S. laws. They can’t really fight piracy, even with laws like the PRO-IP Act (Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act of 2008) and the DMCA (U.S. Digital Millenium Copyright Act). The purposes of both are straightforward: to make it easier to prosecute anyone accused of piracy. But realistically, the fight against piracy is pretty pointless, kind of like WWI-esque trench warfare. It doesn’t really go anywhere. Trying to fight it is a waste of resources.

The point of copyright, though, is protection of property. It’s intended to encourage artists to confidently create more material, secure in the knowledge that what they have can’t be stolen. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and big studios would like to have the law treat digital music in particular as physical property, but it actually counts as intellectual property. Theft refers to the removal of the original material, while piracy means making a copy. If music were to be treated as physical property, then laws that absolutely prohibit illegal downloading would have to be passed. That’s not the case.

The incentive that current copyright law is supposed to provide is working as it should. The effects of piracy differ between the music and movie industries, but on the whole, piracy actually boosts the sales and popularity of new, up-and-coming indie artists trying to get off the ground, like singer Amanda Palmer who spoke at a TED Talk about putting out her work, letting it get pirated, and then later making over $1 million on Kickstarter. Other artists and bands like Radiohead, Foo Fighters and Joss Stone have made statements about being okay with piracy, describing it as not unlike making tapes back in the 80’s–today, piracy is like an evolved version of that.

On the flip side of the argument, however, there is inherent danger in allowing work to be pirated. Profits don’t go straight to the artist, and once the material is out there, it’s hard to control distribution. But at the same time, piracy is like free publicity. It’s up to the artist to decide how much of a risk to take. The ideal strategy would be to release some work for free, keep some to be sold, and then to let the consumer decide how much to give in support.

Aside from just free publicity, piracy actually triggers a slight income redistribution effect. In the wake of the 2012 Megaupload shutdown, the bigger companies and studios saw an increase in profits while the smaller labels and artists actually ended up with less. The Megaupload effect works like this: if I see or hear something for free, I can choose later on whether or not to support the artist by actually buying the material. This is a choice that I can make. And if it’s within my price range, I usually buy it. I choose to support this artist or that filmmaker or whoever. Personally, I’m a lot more comfortable with doing that instead of buying something I’ve never heard or seen, because then I know what I’m paying for. And then, even if I can’t buy it, I can tell other people. They might like the material and might be willing or able to pay.

Piracy at its basics isn’t quite stealing, it’s more like sharing. It has its benefits. It’s free and relatively convenient, and it’s certainly not as bad as the big companies and studios would have everyone believe.

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  • Glenn Langford

    The key phrase in your whole argument is contained in the first 2 words: “I WANT”. Yet another self-justifying argument for people with zero ability to delay gratification. What you DIDN’T want was to go to the cinema when it was screening, or wait for a legal option to become available, so you took it! Congratulations, your selfishness and that of others like you is costing jobs in the industries that create the content you claim to be a fan of.

  • Marc Cabot

    It is a curious and, perhaps, unanswerable question as to whether your grasp of ethics or copyright law is the more inadequate. But I would like to quickly address your most egregious error.

    I already made an effort to pay for the material, but since I couldn’t, well. I’m sure Marvel and Disney are making plenty of money off the movie already.

    No, you didn’t. You found out how to obtain it and decided you wouldn’t. And it is not up to you to decide how much money is “plenty,” or when anyone has enough of it. I am sure there are a lot of people in the world who think you have “plenty” of money, even though you can’t afford new-release Blu-Ray’s, and would feel perfectly justified in relieving you of some of it. And I don’t just mean strongarm robbery – I mean, say, hacking your bank account. After all, it’s just digital information, right? What did they actually take? How is that even stealing?

    How, indeed.

  • Randy

    Helena, go out and buy a guitar and amp for $2000, find four friends who
    also spent that and a drummer who spent more. Practice every night for
    three years until you all can play a tune from beginning to end. Oh and
    work nightshift part time so you can pay for the rehearsal room – $30 an
    hour. Don’t have a life or watch tv or hang out at parties or
    basketball games – ya gotta practice scales and chords until 4 in the
    morning. Then book a recording studio and make a 3 song demo for $1500
    that totally sucks. Blow another $1300 on printing CDs that stack up in
    the drummer’s garage. Now repeat this 3 times for 5 years and spend 30
    grand. Now you’re starting to get good and one of your songs people
    actually like. Drag your boxes of CDs to the gig and watch people rip
    your song from the internet and go home. Take boxes of CDs back to
    drummer’s garage and repeat ad nauseum. Good luck!

  • cal.bear

    Helen
    Using your logic it should be OK for you to also steal computer software, phone and Ipad apps and for that matter books from a store.

  • willbuckley

    I don’t know how old you are, Helen, but you look very young and happy. Clearly you don’t really understand the consequences of your actions or I don’t think you’d share so freely in public. I wonder if your parents ever talked to you about this. My guess is probably not and your basing your choice on what your peers have to say.

    And maybe this is the learning. If you are a parent and reading this, I ask you, have you ever talked to your kids about online piracy? My guess is probably not and by not doing so, you are missing out on teaching your child an important lesson about respect and contribution.

    Piracy may not be a gateway drug, but it does set the tone for how people act when they can do whatever they want. In many ways the Internet is the ultimate challenge for personal integrity. Because I respect the artists who put it all on the line to inspire and enlighten my life, it actually gives me pleasure to give something back of equal value for their work.

    And isn’t that the world you want your children to live in?

  • Jim

    Piracy does not damage profits? There are less then half as many working musicians in the US today as there was in 2000. The ebil labels have seen their revenue slashed by 40 percent. The big ebil Movie studios are seeing their revenue go down. Its their TV revenue that is the profit center.

    Sorry but its nonsense that piricy helps up and coming artist. Amanda Palmer had a major label contract that is why she was able to become well known enough to raise a million on kick starter. And she is an extreme outlier. The music industry is more dominated by the major artist today then any time in recorded music history.

    And there are laws against stealing err copyright infringement .

  • Charles Broam

    It just makes more sense when you can see the movie, read the poem, and/or listen to the music or other content BEFORE you buy it. Too many times, Hollywood puts out total garbage. And they expect me to keep paying theater costs of a ticket (which always seem to be rising and rising and rising), when I don’t know if it’s crap or not?!?! WELL HELL NO! I will wait for the torrent release FIRST!
    Case in point: Maleficent. Excellent movie, just watched the torrent. Angelina Jolie should be proud of herself. Can’t wait for the DVD to purchase.

    2nd case in point: 300: Rise of an Empire. Terrible movie. New directer hacked the crap out of it.not even close the original “300” movie. Will NOT purchase.

    3rd case: renting movies with scratches that will not play in the machine. You go to take them back to see if they can swap it out to find no more copies. And they can’t repair the one you rented. Worse – IT STOPPED RIGHT IN THE FREAKING MIDDLE!!!! Good thing there is a way to still watch the movie. Hey, I already paid for it. At Least I still get to see it.

  • WesH

    Just because YOU have the ability to choose to later support artists after downloading their work for free does not mean this CHOICE is on everyone’s mind. The majority of people who pirate media aquire what they want for free all the time, with no intention to EVER purchase the media in any form. I hear these people say “why bother paying if I can get it for free?” While some attention may be gained via piracy, artists have many other means to gain attention.

  • TeachLowell

    Helen: Your piece is so far off it embarrassed me for you. Copyright piracy is a serious offense and is a crime whether it be music, film, or writing. As stated in Wikipedia – (how easy would that have been for you to research?) “Copyright may apply to a wide range of creative, intellectual, or artistic forms, or “works”. Specifics vary by jurisdiction, but these can include poems, theses, plays and other literary works, motion pictures, choreography, musical compositions, sound recordings, paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, computer software, radio and television broadcasts, and industrial designs.” The cost of the film is based on others paying the licensing fee so they can show it then charging you in order for you to watch it.
    At the university when you “pirate” someone else’s work, we call it plagiarism. Normal citation typically clears that issue. With your piracy of the film, as a licensed work, there is no way to clear your behavior. You broke the law. I am embarrassed for you – primarily because you are so selfish and arrogant that you think you can justify your behavior.

    • Luvan

      I’m sorry, but your ignorance is what’s really embarrassing here. There is very little moral conflict over piracy: Publishers restrict artistic expression in order that they can make artificially inflated profits. Intellectual property laws exist in order to protect the artist, not the publisher: This is because, last time I checked, a handful of private companies with bloated bank accounts is not in the public interest.

      In any other situation, doing things like enforcing “region codes” and other practices would be seen as uncompetitive and hence illegal. However, because of lobbying, these practices are legal and continue to this day. The fact that these practices are legal does not make them moral, or ethical, and vice-versa for piracy. These companies should realise that people are not corporate entities, and are empathetic to good intentions: If they would simply have some integrity they would see sales go up exponentially.

      Your analogy about plagiarism is equally as ignorant: Last time I checked, downloading and reading one of your fellow student’s / researcher’s papers isn’t plagiarism. In fact it is an integral part of many fields such as the sciences, where peer-review is extremely important. There is no money-making going on here either, so none of the laws we are discussing apply in these situations.

      Please go and educate yourself, and come back to the debate once you get yourself a moral backbone and stop regurgitating what others tell you to believe.

      • Cantou

        Agree with you, esp. the comment on TeachLowell – “I’m sorry, but your ignorance is what’s really embarrassing here.” :D

        As a postgraduate student focusing on intellectual property law, I am pretty sure copyright is sth. far from morality.