23 August 2009

Some Thoughts on Internet Piracy

This post is inspired by this Stephen Fry podgram.

There are those who would equate internet piracy with stealing. To do this is in essence correct, but it ignores a large grey area which I think must be addressed.

First, I want to point out that I in no way am an advocate of large scale piracy - ripping DVD's or CD's right after release or even weeks before, and then turning around and disseminating the content for your own monetary gain. This is arguably just plain wrong.

Instead, what I'll be talking about is the average person who shares music, who downloads a TV show because they can't get it in their country, or because it is no longer available on the air, or even on disc, or who mods their console to play different region games. This is the sort of 'piracy' I'm talking about.

Now we need to get another thing straight. I'm not going to go into OED definitions of stealing and piracy. I'm going to do something that is usually forbidden by my own rules, and redefine the terms for the purpose of this discussion. I feel the need to do so because the world is changing, and traditional concepts of theft just don't hold.

There are two ways to steal. One is to take something in such a way so that the original owner doesn't have access to it anymore. If I stole your car, this would be an example of what I'm talking about. You'd have to buy a new car, or walk to work. That would suck, and I should be duly punished for such a crime.

Way number two is to take something in such a way so that the original owner maintains access to the article, but is still sometimes inconvenienced as a result. If I were to somehow build an exact duplicate of your car, complete with the custom paint job, and drive around town, perhaps going to seedy places, and people mistook me for you due to the similarity of our vehicles, this would be an example. You'd be inconvenienced, but I wouldn't have technically stolen the car. I might have negatively impacted your life, and that would suck. But most would agree that any such punishment I would incur, if any, should be of a lesser magnitude than if I had actually driven away your real car while laughing maniacally.

This is pretty much a thought experiment. No one is going to build a duplicate of your car. For centuries, no one had to worry about this distinction. Taking food, or money, or tools from someone was theft, plain and simple.

Today, with the advent of digital transference of data, this sort of thing is now possible. If you make a song, a story, or even a whole movie, everyone in the world can take it from you, while leaving the original unchanged. They are no longer taking anything from you at all.

Or are they? If you make your living by charging people to see your bit of art, and someone else copies it and puts it up for display, you lose your income. They aren't just stealing a thing, they're stealing your livelihood. To add insult to injury, they usually make a buck off it, too.

This is unacceptable, of course. But the reality is that it's still not that simple. Whereas in the good old days, when someone took something from you, the loss was obvious and apparent. 'A thief stole my wallet. Thus, I am short one wallet.' But with this new method of theft, your loss is less salient, and must be calculated. And this is where it all falls apart. They aren't stealing anything from you that currently exists, but something that would have, or more likely, just might have, existed - i.e. future profit, or sales.

Let me make this very clear. No longer is it true theft, but simply an action that cuts into your future profit. The act must then be punished accordingly. Why? Because someone who cuts into profits must be punished. Right?

Well, if that's true, let's examine the situation to see what else might cut into profits. Let's take a movie, for example. What sort of things might also cause a movie to not make as much money as expected?

  • It might suck.
  • There might be a popular video game released on the opening weekend.
  • There might be, oh I don't know, swine flu. Or a bad economy.
  • The theatre might not be well situated, or air-conditioned.
  • The film may not have been advertised sufficiently, or well.
  • A critic at an early screening may have hated it, and said so.
  • The film may have content that prevents certain groups, such as minors, or Christians, from seeing it.
  • Another film may be competing with it, sucking up the moviegoers.

Or, somebody may have put it up on a torrent site.

We now see that this so-called 'piracy' is just one more factor in a long list of things that cuts into a film's financial success. It's not theft, it's just a nuisance. It may be the straw that broke the camel's back, and it might be easily punishable. For instance, it can be traced to one zitfaced teenager with a camera in the audience, who is easily blamed. Who do you blame when your movie sucks? But isn't it just as easy to trace a film's failure (or lack of projected success) to a single critic? Do critics get gaoled or fined for cutting into profits? No, they're payed for it. I suppose they alway have the capability of increasing profits for some other lucky movie. But doesn't piracy have that capacity, as well? Raising people's attention to the existence of the film?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that no major media corporation has been utterly obliterated by piracy as of yet. They post losses, they make wild calculations about what might have been, and they whine, and they want to hold someone responsible. Hey, I'd like it if I could take people to court for not paying me money to watch my antics, too, but it's not gonna happen.

Ultimately, piracy cuts into profits. Just like competition. And America thrives (or is supposed to thrive) on competition. When you start losing money to the other guy, step up your game. Think of piracy like the other guy - like competition. When piracy cuts into sales, and you start losing money - step up your game. Should theatres have killed TV? Should cable have killed VHS? No, and moreover, they didn't. And media corporations shouldn't - and I think, won't - kill piracy. The smart thing to do is to compete. No back-stabbing, no throat-cutting. If you don't want people to pirate, make them not want to pirate. I can't download the IMAX experience. I can't e-mail myself to a concert. I can't print out a limited edition Master Chief figurine. Maybe someday we'll be able to, and then the corporations will have to step up their game once again. That's what they do, that's how they survive. But we'll continue to cause friction, trying to bring them down. Cos we're weasels, and that's what we do.

Stop gouging the little guy. Stop threatening teenagers with gaol time who just want to play foreign games. Stop denying the average citisen a well-rounded cultural education just because you want a buck for every song they'll ever hear.

And, for the love of all that's good, stop whining and looking around wildly for someone to blame when your movie doesn't make as many millions of dollars as your over-eager marketing department thought it would.

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