Piracy: A Social Phenomenon

I was always a little bit on the fence on the issue of piracy. I do not want to openly endorse it here on a public blog. I agree that conceptually it is a wrong thing to do, and that theoretically it does impact the content creators. However for me to openly condemn it would be just hypocritical. I just accept it as a fact of life, and approach it pragmatically. It is a bit like littering. Is it ok, to toss a candy wrapper or a cigarette but out of the window of your car while driving on an empty road cutting through the forest? Nope, it’s not ok. Most people will agree that it is bad for the environment, inconsiderate and anyone who does it is an ass. But, then everyone has probably done it at least once in their life. Most people don’t even think about it – they just toss something out the window and drive away. I noticed that most people have almost identical attitude about piracy.

Let me give you couple of examples. The other day I was at work and overheard the following conversation:

Secretary: Where do you get your music?
Administrative Assistant: Oh, I use that Wire-Lime thing.
Secretary: Is that safe? I don’t want to get caught.
Administrative Assistant: Nah, it’s only illegal if you upload. You can set it to download only and then you are ok.
Secretary: Are you sure?
Office Manager: Yeah cause you’re not distributing so it’s legal
Administrative Assistant: Also… I think it’s legal in Europe.

This was conversation between grown, educated women in their late 20’s and 30’s with white collar jobs and plenty of disposable income they could spend on music. They barely know how to turn on a computer in the morning, but they are into file sharing anyway. They are aware that the practice was illegal, but they are willing to take that risk – just like they take the risk speeding on a highway, or running the stop sign on their way to work.

I once asked my students to raise their hand if they ever illegally downloaded a movie, song or a piece of software from the internet. Almost everyone raised their hands. One girl sitting in the middle looked around, and exclaimed “Where do you people download this stuff?”. Needless to say, that day she went home with bunch of “useful” links carefully written in her notebook. Most people don’t really care, unless they get caught.

And even if they get slapped on the wrist, they don’t really stop pirating. I once had the following conversation with a coworker:

Coworker: I got one of those cease and desist letters from my ISP the other day.
Me: Really? Why?
Coworker: My son was downloading movies of the bit torrent.
Me: Wow. Is it like from MPPAA?
Coworker: Nope, just the ISP. They are just warning us to stop cause they got a complaint.
Me: So what are you going to do?
Coworker: I forbid my son from using torrents. I told him, over and over again that the safest way to download stuff is from Usenet but that kid never listens.

Yep, don’t use torrent – use Usenet instead. File sharing is perfectly ok, as long as you don’t get caught! Can you see pattern emerging here? Anyone trying to combat piracy by appealing to morality, ethics and etc is facing an uphill battle. While it might be wrong, it is socially acceptable… No, socially permissible to break copyright law. There is no social stigma around it. In our society smoking and drinking is less accepted than blatant copyright infringement – and these two things are perfectly legal.

Here is another conversation I have overheard – this time at the video game isle at Wallmart:

Kid: Dad, can we get this game?
Fater: Are you insane?! This is 60 bucks! Why don’t you just download it from the internet!
Kid: But dad…
Fater: No buts! Put it away now!

You could argue this is bad parenting, and/or irresponsible behavior. Perhaps it is. But I have yet to see a parent who gets upset that their kid is “saving them money” by downloading movies and video games from the internet. Most parents are actually pleased – they think it’s somewhat frugal. Some worry about the potential legal issues in an event their children will get caught. But then again, how many people who got sued by RIAA or MPAA you know personally? You know, like a friend of your second cousins former roommate fathers sister in law kind of thing.

No? Me neither. Very few people actually ever saw a victim of the *AA legal machine. Statistically, chances of you getting caught are somewhat akin to chances of you winning a lottery. Most people are ok taking this risk – especially if they mostly leach, and do it very casually. Downloading 5-6 mp3’s and perhaps one movie every month makes you a relatively small target – especially if you close the torrent connection or remove the files from your shared folder as soon as they are downloaded as many people do.

To tell you the truth, I have yet to hear someone IRL preaching about the evils of piracy, and condemning file sharing. I swear, I have never in my life met a person who did not indulge in a little bit of piracy now an then or at least benefit from it. Even the conservative, religious and law abiding little old ladies I met while I was working at a doctors office back in the day openly admitted they watched a movie or listened to a CD burned for them by their grandchildren and thought nothing of it.

I’m not saying there are no people like that out there – idealists, who refuse to download movies and music from the internet. I’m just saying they are a dime a dozen and I have yet to meet one in person. And even then, I wonder if they sometimes borrow movies or music from friends. Cause if they do, they are no different from the rest of us. In my mind there is no difference between downloading a DVD rip, watching it once and deleting it, and borrowing a DVD from a friend or a relative. Or rather the only difference is the legal scope. Former is legally shady, while the later I believe is perfectly ok. But logically, morally and ethically – I can’t tell a fucking difference between the two.

And that is the problem. We can either completely lock down our media and make it virtually impossible to socially share, re-sell, and exchange them or just accept piracy as a social phenomenon of digital age and concentrate on adding value to your products to make them better than free. The entertainment industry decided to take the first route trying to lock down our media. But as we have seen it over and over again, this just doesn’t work. Almost every form of DRM can and will be broken. And if it is too difficult to break, it can be defeated using the analog hole. And of course the scene folks have inside suppliers who can leak out pre-release material before it even gets wrapped in DRM to begin with. In other words, investing in DRM is like tilting at windmills. Wasteful, futile, silly and deeply tragic.

[tags]piracy, drm, file sharing, sharing, copyright[/tags]

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16 Responses to Piracy: A Social Phenomenon

  1. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    This is definitely one of those “I don’t see the victim” crimes in which people are so removed from whoever might suffer (e.g., software developer) that it’s tough for most people to care… in the same way that most people don’t really care about starving children in Africa (or America for that matter) and in the same way that most people don’t care how much they drive (pollute), except when factoring in the cost of fuel. When you add the fact that copyright law is completely set by judicial precedent and unclear at best, and then you top that with few people knowing anyone who was really punished, it’s unlikely that illegal copying is going to fade away.

    As an example of the legality of copying literature: It is legal for a teacher to make a copy of a poem that s/he finds the night before teaching a class on poetry. Spontaneity allows for this and it has been ruled legal in many court cases. Using that same poem the next quarter/semester/year is not legal, because the teacher theoretically had the opportunity to contact the author and obtain permission to use the poem.

    My excuse in high school was simply that I couldn’t afford X software, so my (illegal) use of it did not cost the company any money. Illegal, yes, but the victim becomes even more distant. Fortunately I’ve moved on to open source for virtually everything, so I don’t have to worry about the issue as much.

    The “better than free” idea is definitely key, but so too is the concept of what happens with the money. If all the profits for X song go to a certain charity, I’d bet fewer people would illegally obtain it. If all the profits instead go to buying the musician another Escalade, people care a lot less.

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  2. Gunni ICELAND Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Hmm… ‘better than free’ would have to be pretty good for people like students, who I believe do the majority of the TV show and movie pirating, to actually pay for it.

    At the moment you get all the latest music, tv shows and music delivered to your computer before almost everyone else, provided that you can work a torrent client. This is at the price of an internet connection and the very low risk of prosecution (extremely low if you don’t live in the US).

    I think most students would continue to choose the illegal option.

    That said, I think that things like tv schedules are dying out, and that viewing/getting shows and movies through the net is the future, so it’s probably worth it to try to implement the ‘better than free’ ideal. If you make it available and easy enough you’ll make a fortune.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2485″]As an example of the legality of copying literature: It is legal for a teacher to make a copy of a poem that s/he finds the night before teaching a class on poetry. Spontaneity allows for this and it has been ruled legal in many court cases. Using that same poem the next quarter/semester/year is not legal, because the teacher theoretically had the opportunity to contact the author and obtain permission to use the poem.[/quote]

    Wow… Really? I thought that this would fall under the fair use clause. I mean, you could argue that you are simply “quoting” small port of a published collection or anthology of poems for educational purposes, no?

    [quote post=”2485″]That said, I think that things like tv schedules are dying out, and that viewing/getting shows and movies through the net is the future[/quote]

    Not only that – we also have Tivo and other dvr technologies. And my cable company offers an “on demand” service where you can watch many of the shows and you missed at your leisure, and you can pause/rewind them as needed.

    The only time I actually watch TV shows at their original air times, is if it’s a social thing – like when I watch Lost every week with my cousin so we can make “WTF just happened?” comments in real time and google various clues as they drop them on the show. :P

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  4. Where to begin:

    First of all, I would like to point out that this is the 2nd blog that I have wanted to write on that you have written and I came here right before going to my own blog to start writing. Damn it.

    Since I still plan on writing a nice article about it, I will simply sum up what I am talking about by saying this:

    This is a nice quote from Max Barry:
    But people won’t really steal novels, will they? Well, yes. Everyone knows it’s wrong to steal VCRs, but people still do it. Now imagine you could steal a VCR without actually taking it from anybody: you just had to touch another one, and a new copy would materialize in your hands. Except it’s easier than that, because some people leave their VCR out in the open for the deliberate purpose of allowing you to get a copy of it, so you don’t need to break into anyone’s home. Except it’s even easier than that, because you don’t have to go anywhere; you just have to make a phone call, and your fully functional copy of a VCR will appear. Except it’s not like a normal phone call, because you don’t have to reveal your identity: you just dial a number, don’t say anything, and the VCR appears on your desk. It’s the perfect crime. You know it’s wrong, of course: you’re meant to pay for it.

    (=== Me time ===)
    The beautiful thing about it is… although its “theft”, you know the person still has THEIR copy of it so its not like anyone is hurt.

    Another thing about copyright, is that its supposed to allow you to lay claim to your work… And really I am sure that P2P (even illeagly) has expanded many peoples horizons to different music types.

    Look at me, I found that I am a crazy Led Zep fan… But I only listen to country… How would I have ever heard zep?

    I will be posting a nice long blog about this probably by monday… as usual I will stop by and inform you. I have some really cool new features on the blog.

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  5. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    It’s especially because of the DRM that I withheld playing one of RPGs I had anticipated since it debuted on the X360: Mass Effect. But after the 10-day reactivation (which was subsequently removed), requirement for internet connection for a single player game and maximum 3 installation thing, I decided NO.

    Another game I’m looking very much forward to is Spore, but there is talk that it will come with the exact same DRM scheme. Big downer. :(

    It’s like EA is giving me incentive to get a pirated copy.
    Bought copy = online activation, 3 max install.
    Pirated copy = install anytime, anywhere.

    I have said it and I will say it again: I am a big believer of StarDock’s stance on piracy. It will always be there. It cannot be eliminated. However, it is ALSO not the fault of your honest customers, so let’s give them more value for their purchase and less incentive to pirate. The internet is not only for activation purposes, but also very useful for distribution, so allow them to register with our servers and re-download their game.

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  6. There is a popular forum software that has kinda the same stance (i can’t remember which one) but basically their forum is available to people with keys only… and if you want any of the cool plugins and features… or support or anything else for that matter you have to have a key…

    So yeah, you can run this forum software hacked… but you can only use its core features.. if you really want anything else.. you have to have the key.

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  7. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    [quote comment=”9241″]
    The beautiful thing about it is… although its “theft”, you know the person still has THEIR copy of it so its not like anyone is hurt.[/quote]

    That’s misdirection. The argument isn’t that you’re stealing from other endusers, it’s that you’re depriving the creators of their due. Essentially the crime is you’re using a service (entertainment) without submitting the requested recompense to the owners/creators.

    [quote]Look at me, I found that I am a crazy Led Zep fan… But I only listen to country… How would I have ever heard zep?[/quote]

    Dunno. But ‘entertaining me for free’ isn’t well supported by ‘my life is enriched by it’ – surely if it has value to you, you’d recompense adequately?

    Don’t get me wrong, I am an unabashed pirate. I just don’t go for the high moral arguments about it. For me, it’s about convenience. I’m not afraid to purchase a game – I even loved EUII so much I purchased it three times (lost one disk in a move and another was damaged in another move) – but nothing kills ardour for a game like getting home, unwrapping it, running into DRM issues, it not being resolved, emailing support (who may or may not get back to you any time soon, if at all) and not being able to use it for possibly days, or even at all. But frankly for everyone, it’s about convenience. People don’t listen to pirated music they don’t like just to spite the RIAA. People don’t play games they don’t like just to laugh at Starforce. It’s all about convenience.

    Piracy does hurt vendors. Not as much as they say, but not as little as piracy advocates say either. But yes, it’s here to stay. I just hope that Spore comes out before the US gets it’s treaty with Sweden to shut down piratebay.org…

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2485″]The argument isn’t that you’re stealing from other endusers, it’s that you’re depriving the creators of their due. Essentially the crime is you’re using a service (entertainment) without submitting the requested recompense to the owners/creators.[/quote]

    Very true. It is not a victimless crime as it is often claimed. But it is not always as simple. A pirated copy does not always equal a lost sale. A lot of pirates would never buy a given game, or watch a movie if it was not available to them for free. At most they would possibly consider “borrowing” it from a friend, but if the friend never got the game/movie, they would just forget about it and move on.

    It’s kinda like with free online services. If you offer free accounts, everyone signs up for the service just to check it out and you end up with a million user accounts that were accessed once and then abandoned.

    [quote post=”2485″]I just hope that Spore comes out before the US gets it’s treaty with Sweden to shut down piratebay.org…[/quote]

    Oh wow, we are doing a treaty now? Meh, no matter…

    We will still have mininova, sumo torrent, torrent reactor, torrent-damage, demonoid and etc… Not to mention emules, lime wires, and the other p2p networks I hardly ever use because torrents are better. Oh, and usenet.

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  9. You see… I am not trying to take the moral high ground… I know its wrong.. but currently I am homeless by almost every definition. I don’t have the money to buy adiquite food for myself… let alone music.

    However, I *HAVE* bought some zep CDs after i had some saved money… also some pink floyd… people i have never thought of listening too…

    And I have a teacher who claims to have purchased more music when napster was big than any otehr time in his life.

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  10. Also a few things one i found on wikianswers:
    Bands certainly make more money from concerts. Most major label contracts only pay a small fraction of each CD– there are many, many reductions taken from the artist’s royalties. So unless your CD sells millions of units, you’re not going to make much. For live performances, however, the artist keeps most of the money.
    Basically this can be extended to the debate about pirating digital music: it’s not going to kill the artist, it’s only killing the record companies.
    Here’s a great article on the subject:
    http://www.musiclaw.info/contractbasics.html

    Why do you think its the Recording Industry of America that has the issue not the Singers Guild of America (or whatever bands call their little group)? They make their money on concerts and merchandise

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  11. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    [quote comment=”9238″]Wow… Really? I thought that this would fall under the fair use clause. I mean, you could argue that you are simply “quoting” small port of a published collection or anthology of poems for educational purposes, no?[/quote]

    You could attempt to make that argument, but it’s rough ground. Imagine if throughout the unit the teacher is giving copies of various works do demonstrate different styles. Essentially, the teacher is creating an “anthology” of works. For secondary schools, this generally isn’t much of an issue because someone doesn’t want to be known as “the guy who sues public schools,” but it is a consideration. That’s yet another excuse for English teachers commonly sticking to really old works that are public domain.

    [quote comment=”9241″]The beautiful thing about it is… although its “theft”, you know the person still has THEIR copy of it so its not like anyone is hurt.[/quote]

    The big companies try to equate it to theft, but it is infringement. I think Luke posted the climbing a tree to watch a baseball game analogy that works pretty well.

    [quote comment=”9260″]However, I *HAVE* bought some zep CDs after i had some saved money… also some pink floyd… people i have never thought of listening too…

    And I have a teacher who claims to have purchased more music when napster was big than any otehr time in his life.[/quote]

    I bought a lot of music when MP3s (and thus “sharing”) were first becoming popular too, but I don’t believe that’s the norm. In general, a person isn’t willing to buy a CD with songs s/he already has.

    The more transparent that services selling music (or whatever product) can become, the more that they will beat out piracy. If I have to click a million boxes, input my CC#, confirm my address, opt out of stupid newsletters, etc., then the service is getting in the way of the product.

    Consider the popularity of Netflix; it is easy. I can create a queue with little effort. I can watch a movie and return it, watch the next one and return it, and watch the next one and return it without ever having to go back online as long as my queue is large enough. I never have to bother with stamps. It probably also helps that movies people download are typically lower quality than DVDs, but I think ease of use is the biggest factor in their success. I don’t even have to browse for movies; it suggests them for me.

    Humankind is always moving toward greater laziness; companies would do well to capitalize on that.

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  12. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    [quote comment=”9261″]Also a few things one i found on wikianswers:
    Bands certainly make more money from concerts. Most major label contracts only pay a small fraction of each CD– there are many, many reductions taken from the artist’s royalties. So unless your CD sells millions of units, you’re not going to make much. For live performances, however, the artist keeps most of the money.[/quote]

    The problem is that you’re still accessing a service without providing the recompense the service owners ask for it.

    [quote]I don’t have the money to buy adiquite food for myself… let alone music. [/quote]

    Again, this implies the argument that ‘if I can’t afford it, it’s okay to take it’. Not being able to afford something isn’t a justification for taking it – it’s not like music is required to keep you breathing. Not being able to afford music is simply an inconvenience you solve by taking it.

    Sure you may have bought some led zep CDs… what about the other music you use but not enough to buy CDs for? That ‘one track’ you really like? Have you recompensed anyone for it? Not that I particularly care, but it’s an example of an unpaid service.

    Out of the people I know, most will pirate a lot of games, but buy a few; some people pirate a few videos but have extensive DVD collections; very few people have more than a handful of music CDs newer than ten years old, and those that do tend to have CDs of local bands. As Ian says above, people for the most part just don’t buy CDs for music they get from other sources.

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  13. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [quote comment=”9264″]very few people have more than a handful of music CDs newer than ten years old, and those that do tend to have CDs of local bands. As Ian says above, people for the most part just don’t buy CDs for music they get from other sources.[/quote]

    Heh, I noticed that too. But I think this is because we have choices now. Before mp3’s, CD burners and mp3 players, this was the only reliable way to get a good quality copy of that one song you really liked – you had to buy the whole damn record.

    Now we have choices. You can buy that song on iTunes, Amazon or one of the dozen other stores. You download it from one of the few dozen p2p services. Or you can skim through popular music blogs, and forums which specialize in posting links to mp3’s or whole records uploaded to rapidshare or megaupload.

    I have yet to see an album which was briliant from start to end. Usually, you get one or two good songs, 2-3 other average songs that may or may not grow on you and the rest you couldn’t care less about. So unless you are a big fan of a given band, you rarely want a full record – you just want the songs you like. And thus the CD sales are falling. Because people now have alternatives (some legal, and some not) which let them just get the stuff they like, at a price they can agree with.

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  14. Llama PHILIPPINES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    These control maniacs thinks that sharing is illegal? Its just like your saying don’t breath my air… I mean, com’on! Do they really get payed on doing these things? No body’s perfect! Not even them…

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  15. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’m a law student at a top tier law school planning on working in the info privacy/security sector. My first summer I did copyright work for the university library, so I’m pretty familiar with the issues. The university got lots of both DMCA take down notices, RIAA pre-litigation extortion letters, and RIAA subpoenas requiring preservation of evidence.

    So I do know, by name only, plenty of individuals hit by these suits. Yes the chance of being caught is minuscule. But, these things can really cause you lots of problems. $3-4k for a settlement is pretty minor compared to the costs of fighting these things, even if they’re inaccurate/unjust.

    The problem with piracy of entertainment, as I see it, is habit. Once individuals find they can get it free, especially given rising costs elsewhere (food, gas) they have a really hard time getting back to paying $15 for an album, $18 for a movie, or $60 for a video game. Software suffers a similar problem, but it seems exaggerated. Plenty of individuals think, “I spent $2,000 for this computer, the software I need should be included in that price.”

    [quote comment=”9265″]I have yet to see an album which was briliant from start to end. Usually, you get one or two good songs, 2-3 other average songs that may or may not grow on you and the rest you couldn’t care less about. So unless you are a big fan of a given band, you rarely want a full record – you just want the songs you like. And thus the CD sales are falling. Because people now have alternatives (some legal, and some not) which let them just get the stuff they like, at a price they can agree with.[/quote]

    I find I can’t listen to standalone songs – I listen almost exclusively to entire albums. I’ve found lots of fantastic music, if you’re interested check my last.fm profile (warning: it includes the music my wife’s listens too as well, but it is the minority and she generally has good taste).

    Anyway, that was an aside. The real point of quoting this was to make the comment that consumers don’t choose prices in nearly any mass market. If consumers can’t agree with a price point, that doesn’t entitle them to pirate. Refusing to purchase at $20/cd is what brought about great deals like Amazon’s $1 mp3s, emusic, etc – and that’s what we need.

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