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On Pirating

August 12th, 2009

Is pirating media (books, music, video, software) illegal? Is it even “bad”? It’s easy enough to say it’s all illegal, or that “my position is right because those people are nothing more than petty crooks,” but the real situation is somewhat more complex than any of that. We have to realize that the world of “intellectual property” is literally what we make of it; it is defined by what we decide it to be, and is based not upon laws of physics but upon assumptions and assertions which are not necessarily set in stone–and may even have to change.

A great deal of the problem has to do with the pre-standing paradigm of entertainment content: for most of the past century, a lot of content has either been ‘free’ or available in a form that seems free. People do not equate commercials with cash payment, so generations have become used to getting music ‘for free’ over the radio, or video for free on the TV. Even printed material (books, magazines, etc.) are available for free via the public library. There are cash-paid versions of all of these media types, but more people experience them for free and expect that outlet. Then there was lending and borrowing, where one person would buy a book or a CD and would lend it to family and friends–not seen as criminal, but we would get content for free that way as well.

Then copying technology slowly emerged, and the “lending” paradigm transferred into that. People started copying music on cassette tapes, videotaping TV shows, even copying videotapes and so forth. The industry threw up objections, but for the most part, not much happened–for a few generations, we were copying music and video and there were no common penalties paid, and no great social stigma about it.

In comes the Internet, where even more content is free–you can get content from magazines and newspapers for free, where you used to have to pay for that. This, along with the new ability to digitally copy media, only intensified what had been going on in other forms for decades. Nothing new, only easier.

So we have a cultural paradigm that has been building over a very long period of time in which copyrighted media, intellectual property, has been regarded as free information in assumption if not in legal fact. Slowly but forcefully, the content owners have been pushing the counter-idea that this media is not free and that not paying for it is stealing, but they’re working against both a now-deeply-ingrained cultural sense of entitlement as well as the selfish disposition of people to defend something they enjoy doing with arguments that they should know are not fully justifiable. Like the cigarette smoker who uses data from ‘studies’ they know were funded by the tobacco industry to claim that smoking isn’t so bad.

Yes, the music industry *is* a collection of greedy corporate parasites who create nothing and use their powerful position to shake down the artists as much as possible and overcharge the customer while imposing unreasonable terms. But that does not change the fact that this is, I believe at least, legal (if more than a little unethical).

Yes, pirating may not actually have much of an impact on sales, profits, and incomes of artists, as emerging studies seem to suggest. It may even be that pirating has a positive effect on music sales; it may be that downward business trends are due only to a slow economy and poor decision-making at the industry level. It may be that artists lose money not from pirates but from the greedy SOB execs who use pirating as an excuse to shake down the artists. But none of that changes the fact that if media is copyrighted and privately owned, and if you acquire that media to possess (as opposed to borrowing as in a library loan or a friend lends you a CD which you listen to and return) without paying for it, then you have stolen it. It may not fulfill your sense of how things *should* be, but it is the way things *are*.

At the same time, we also have to face the fact that copying media is not considered a big deal. People may be initially shy with new acquaintances to reveal that they pirate music, software, or videos, but generally will not think badly of those who admit they do. It’s kind of like admitting that you go 10 mph over the speed limit–it’s technically illegal, but most people do it and few will really give you any guff about it at all. Those who do object may even be looked down upon as “goody two-shoes.”

All that said, we do have to understand that we are now living in an age where media is no longer what it used to be. The legal standards we apply today are based on a system in which copying was not even close to being as easy as it is today. We also have to remember that ownership, especially of intellectual property, is what we define it to be; it is not some magical absolute or law of nature. We can try to hold the ocean back with a broom, but unless the nature of pirating and policing changes radically towards a controlled environment, then either the current state of the ‘honor system’ (which not too many in fact follow) will persist, or a new legal structure must be hammered out.

In the meantime, suffice it to say that there is some grey in the issue.

(The bulk of this post was a comment I left on a post in Gizmodo.)

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