Piracy and morality

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.