In defense of piracy

August 12, 2010

Rally in Stockholm, Sweden, in support of file...
Image via Wikipedia

The other day, I was searching for a book, when I encountered a spectacularly whiny blog post written by its author, talking about the perils of the “word thieves” pirating his books.

First, let’s clear up a misconception:Piracy is not the same as theft.If something is stolen, the problem is that you can no longer access and use your property. But if something is pirated, your property is in an identical state to before it was pirated. You can still use it for anything you want..Or, as this video explains it:

The exception that most copyright holders take with piracy is not that they are “losing” their work, but rather that the piracy makes it harder to sell. Okay, I can buy that(even if the actual “statistics” that industry groups cite are a BS sandwich  on rye BS with an extra helping of BS). But still, it only makes sense that piracy is a crime, right? After all, these people are, for personal gain, reducing the ability of another to make money from their own creation.

Horrible,right?

Except by that logic, every single s film/book/art critic,staff member of Consumer Reports, anti-GMO activist, librarian, and everyday Joe who happens to say “this move is awful, don’t go see it” should go to jail. After all, it would not surprise me in the least if the total loss of revenue from negative publicity and institutions like libraries dwarfs the loss of revenue to piracy by 5 to 1.

Of course, that’s ridiculous, because the ability to spoil the end of a book, or tell someone that a movie is horrible, is both an extension of our right to free speech and a necessary part of a functioning free-market economy. In our society, those considerations get greater weight than the issue of “people are harming the creator’s ability to make money from their creation”. Are they? Yes. Are they justified in doing so? Absolutely.

What about libraries? The presence of some book, movie, music, whatever in a public library is undoubtably a detriment to the copyright holder’s ability to make money off it. Yet, again, libraries can exist because a certain level of access to information is necessary for a healthy, functioning society. As the American Libraries Associations puts it:

Equity of access means that all people have the information they need-regardless of age, education, ethnicity, language, income, physical limitations or geographic barriers. It means they are able to obtain information in a variety of formats-electronic, as well as print. It also means they are free to exercise their right to know without fear of censorship or reprisal

So, if a library is allowed to share copyrighted materials, why shouldn’t digital file-sharing systems be considered a new form of library? After all, systems like BitTorrent can be free of many of the limitations of physical libraries, offering far more translations, easy accessibility from anywhere, a multitude of different formats, a way to avoid “censorship and reprisal”, and near-zero waiting times for most media.

The problem though, is not philosophical, but practical. Copyright holders are scared of the prospect of more efficient library-type systems, not because of any philosophical or societal objection, but because they’re scared of losing money. What’s more, they’ve managed to codify their greed into a series of laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which goes so far as to make certain kinds of computer programming illegal

But at the same time that publishing industries are bemoaning the failure of their laws to stop their loss of money, the world is becoming a radically different place. Linux, a free operating system, has become the OS of choice for high-performance computing.

Linux market share(yellow) on TOP500 supercomputer systems

Google has set up a ridiculously successful business based on giving their products away for free. Hulu has done the same for television and movies. Feedbooks , YouTube, and  DeviantArt have created platforms for creative expression with virtually no overhead for creators. Social networking systems, TV shows, and whistleblower groups are being funded entirely by voluntary donations. In short, the fee-for-service model for information is being made obsolete by better distribution and crowdsourced support.

And look around. How many companies do you see selling LP disks, horse-drawn carriages, and whale oil? It’s time to get with the program, people.

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2 Responses to “In defense of piracy”

  1. mangyMonk said

    “The exception that most copyright holders take with piracy is not that they are “losing” their work, but rather that the piracy makes it harder to sell.”

    Isn’t that basically stealing? If you’re making it hard to sell, the creator can no longer do whatever they want with their work

  2. nathanww said

    If I write some software, and someone steals my computer, I can no longer do ANYTHING with the software. It’s been completely removed from my control. But if someone makes a copy of my software, I can still make descisions about it. Might I make less money off of it? Maybe. But there are literally thousands of factors that influence that. What if someone else comes out with a competing(but not copyright-infringing) piece of software? If that reduces my sales, is that stealing?

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