By John Kamerer
Piracy seems to be the hot topic of this generation, due to the rise of digital media making everything worth pirating infinitely more accessible (whether legitimately or not).
For example, eReaders like the Nook and Kindle will let a customer buy eBooks simply enough, but at the same time, a quick Google search can find most any book in an eReader-compatible format with no copy protection. Consumers can rely on iTunes for musical needs, but if you can hear a song, chances are you can get it for free one way or the other. Streaming video services such as Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Instant Video give viewers several attractive options other than cable TV or buying individual DVDs, but a few hours with BitTorrent can do the same thing.
In the video game industry, it’s still common to buy a game in a physical store. Lately, however, games are becoming increasingly available through digital distribution (and even before that) it is easy to play old classics through emulators on your computer.
Now, with controversial bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Protect IP Act (PIPA), Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), and now the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) attempting to censor the Internet in the name of stopping piracy, it’s important to know all sides of the issue.
So, why do people pirate media? There are actually many reasons aside from the black-and-white “they want this piece of media without paying just to spite the artist/author/producers.” One perfectly legal reason is for the purpose of owning a digital backup of media that you already own. People may pirate because by buying something digitally, you don’t truly “own” it, but rather, you own a license to use it. With physical media, it doesn’t matter if you read a book or turn it into paper-mache, but if Amazon, Apple, or even Nintendo feel they have a good enough reason to, they could suspend your account and “brick” your device of choice. Then what happens to the media that you purchased? Sorry, you no longer have the rights to it, and don’t expect a refund. The people pirating just want some assurance that their media library won’t disappear because someone tried to hack their account.
Perhaps the most common (and the most morally gray) reason is a simple matter of “try before you buy.” A pirate might download the pilot episode of a series—one of a singer’s many albums, or the first installment of a book or game series—and then go back for the rest legitimately because they liked it so much. If you go to The Pirate Bay on any given day, there’s a good chance that an obscure singer/band has purposely put one of their albums up for grabs specifically to invoke this phenomenon.
Despite all the rationalizations, piracy is still ultimately a bad thing. So how do we fight it? Video Game journalist Jeff Gestmann once made the insightful quote, “You have to be easier and more convenient than free. You have to compete with free.” As mentioned earlier, many pirates do what they do because purchasing legitimately only creates hassles with licensing. Many music artists have adopted a business model where the consumer pays for copy-protection free music, eliminating both that particular hassle and the problem of overpriced digital media.
With video games, designers can get creative with how they handle pirates. For example, in the PC version of “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” if a pirated copy is played, Batman will spontaneously lose the ability to turn his cape into a hang-glider about an hour in, making completing the game impossible. The pirate gets just enough playtime to decide whether or not to buy it legitimately, and this tactic effectively cuts them off if they try to continue past the “trying it out before deciding” period.
Here’s a general code of ethics for digital pirates:
Never pirate movies, and only rarely, TV shows. Many shows can be legitimately obtained with Netflix and Amazon Prime memberships.
Look for unprotected eBooks as digital backups of books you already own legitimately. People need to read more, and libraries are starting to become rare.
Only pirate older games. If the game companies no longer make money from people buying the game, it’s their own fault for not putting them up for digital distribution. To compensate for the “minor” piracy of older games, only buy modern games new. Even if you can save a few dollars by buying used, it’s good to show support for the people who take time and effort to create these games. If you do manage to pirate a modern game, consider buying it legitimately later.
Spread your favorite finds by word of mouth rather than by sharing files. If I tell a friend about an album I love, they’re more likely to buy it than pirate it, and hopefully continue spreading the word as well.
If the legitimate media is filled with obstructions in the name of counter-piracy, don’t even try it. We need to show the world that competing with the pirates is more lucrative than trying to stamp them out completely.
John Kamerer is a Resident Einstein in the Wakerly Technology Training Center at Marquette University.