Yesterday was an International Talk Like a Pirate Day and I almost missed it. I’m a day late but I still wanted to use this occasion to talk to you about a very important issue: namely piracy.
Let me tell you a little story. When I was taught that sharing is inherently a good thing. Nice kids shared their toys with the kids on the playground. Nice kids would always bring enough candy for everyone in the class instead of eating it alone. This message was reinforced not only by parents and teachers but also by Saturday morning cartoons and blockbuster Disney movies. Sharing was inherently good.
This is however no longer the case. Current generations are indoctrinated differently. Sometimes sharing is good, but other times it is evil, reprehensible and illegal. Giving your friend an action figure to play with is a good deed. Giving the same friend a copy of your video game counts as “theft”. It is piracy! What is the difference between these two acts? Very minor. The former involves sharing a physical object that cannot be copied, while the later involves sharing digital information that can be easily copied. In fact, that is the property of information – you share it by copying. Avoiding copying it would actually require extra steps (like deleting it from your computer before you give it to someone else).
That’s exactly what I think of when I hear about piracy. I think about sharing information. There is nothing inherently evil or wrong about it. It only becomes wrong when we factor in the rather modern concepts such as intellectual property and copyright law. Concepts which were invented prior to the digital era and were originally designed to regulate book printing industry. Artifacts of a bygone era.
Of course we could argue the validity and utility of these laws back and forward. There are benefits to having them. For example they help to ensure that content creators get paid for their work. Then again the part of the problem is that we as a society still haven’t figured out how to sell information in a digital ecosystem. We still cling to the same methodologies that worked for books and vinyl records. Sadly, these methods do not work with digital goods, which are inherently different from physical ones. You can’t sell ephemeral information the same way as you sell very physical sack of potatoes. And if you try you will run into the piracy problem. A problem which is very much a social phenomenon which can’t be fixed with technology.
Are there better ways of selling information? Yes there are, but hardly anyone is using them yet because they require a radical change in the way we think about information. For now, content creators and distributors are still trying to figure out how to thwart piracy hoping the find a golden bullet that will convert every file sharer into a paid customer. This of course is a pipe dream. It will never work because there will always be people who just want free stuff, and people who are more than willing to give away their own stuff for free. And since the entertainment industry insists on treating information as physical goods, they follow suit and do the same. Physical goods after all can, and should be shared.
Regardless of what piracy is, and how it works, I often ask myself a question: why do we even have a name for it? And is this name appropriate. Whenever you name something, you give it power and validity. Calling petty copyright infringement “piracy” legitimizes and romanticizes it. It makes it into something grand. Same with calling it theft. You can try to pin negative connotations to the act, but people still instinctively know that what they are doing is not what you implying they are. They know in their guts that copying few bytes of data over the internet is at least somewhat different from taking away someone’s physical possession. Sometimes I think that campaigns such as MPAA’s famous “you wouldn’t steal a car” video clip are counter productive.
Just think about it. When you see that clip in a theater with bunch of strangers you can probably safely assume that nearly all of them at some point illegally downloaded a movie, or watched a bootleg video. You can also probably assume that few, if any of these people have ever stole a car – or even considered such an act. So instead of deterring piracy, such a commercial only reinforces how harmless it is. Instead of implying it is as bad as stealing a car, it clearly shows that it isn’t.
Or maybe I’m looking too much into it.
Anyways, happy pirate day folks! Don’t get caught!