Piracy and shoplifting

A common talking point you hear from the RIAA/MPAA and the media corporations is that piracy is stealing. You wouldn’t steal a DVD movie, so why would you download a DVD rip from a torrent site?

Well, the obvious problem with this is that piracy isn’t stealing. Under the law, piracy is “copyright infringement” — stealing implies depriving another of a possession or property, and piracy does not take anything away from the owners of the copyright, other than an abstract loss of potential profit. In other words, when a DVD is copied, the original DVD remains intact.

A less obvious difference between copyright infringement and stealing is the amount of trouble you’ll be in for committing each of them, respectively. This woman was fined 2.4 million dollars for downloading 24 songs, or about two albums worth of music. What do you think would have happened if she had just been caught attempting to steal two albums from a record store? Her punishment would have been much less harsh, at the very least.

This seems very counter-intuitive. Stealing obviously and directly harms another person, by depriving them of property. Piracy does no such thing. As a trend, perhaps, piracy is harmful to copyright holders (I contend that it is not nearly as harmful as it is made out to be in this respect, but for sake of argument I’ll concede this point here), but it’s absurd to claim that, on an individual level, copying a CD deserves orders of magnitude more punishment than stealing a CD.

There’s still room for disagreement here — I’m only pointing out that the rhetoric on the side of the copyright holders is hollow and misleading. There’s a legitimate case to be made on their side, but they aren’t making it — to me, that says something important. I’m not here to play the part of the anarchist, calling for the abolition of copyright. There are two extremes on this issue, and I don’t belong to either one. I do, however, think that piracy can be acceptable. Or, said in a more pessimistic way: piracy is unstoppable. Whether it’s morally defensible or not, it isn’t going away, and calling pirates “thieves” won’t change a damn thing. Actually, it might change one thing — it’ll drive those on our side to be more and more extreme in their opposition to copyright. When I bought an e-book and found that the DRM would prevent me from reading it on my device, I pirated it — and, importantly, I felt doing so was morally justified. The more draconian the DRM, the more people will pirate. The more media companies pull Youtube videos and send take-down letters, the more people will pirate. We’re watching corporations actively participating in their own demise.

In the words of Lawrence Lessig: they criminalize our culture. I’m sure everyone reading this article can think of some funny, original, creative Youtube video that was removed because it contained some copyrighted material. Is it any surprise that we fight back?

I can’t really say I believe downloading an album is “fine,” morally, but I do it anyway. I still buy albums I like (as I do with games, movies, etc), but that comes out of a need to give back to the artists. I never buy media just to have it, because simply having the CD means nothing to me; I could have just downloaded it. The only thing the propaganda and rhetoric does is make me feel less and less guilty about piracy.

About probabilityZero

I'm a rather boring, geeky college student. Most of my time is spent at a computer, reading a book, or sitting in (mostly uninteresting) classes. My hobbies include reading, blogging, creating and running websites, creating amateur video games, arguing incessantly on discussion forums, and buying books on amazon.com because I'm too lazy to go to the library.
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5 Responses to Piracy and shoplifting

  1. Rayyn says:

    I agreed fully with you on this point Mike. I download a large amount of music off of the internet. But when I find a band that I really like, I will go out of my way to support them. Especially in the case or indie bands or non signed artists. Copyright holders already get the lion’s share of the profits rather than artists anyways. It’s just plain greed that is holding them back from finding a better way to deal with and assimilate piracy into something that is still profitable while acceptable to both them and the consumers.

  2. chromium says:

    That’s not really the best message to be sending… that it’s better to steal the cd from a store than download it. But i guess that way the stores get hurt, not the record companies.

  3. Wim says:

    I think you are quite right on this. I only buy albums from smaller bands, I watch videos on youtube, and I don’t download.

    Here in Belgium, recently a new law was made, companies now have to pay Sabam (an organisation like RIAA) for listening to a cd or the radio or … in their offices/cantine/… Even if an employee has an MP3-player or an iPod, the company has to pay Sabam for listening it. Isn’t that just ridiculous? Is it the same over there?

  4. Rion says:

    i am too lazy to read this whole thing, how is piracy like shoplifting?

  5. Nicely said. In case you swing by here, three quick notes:

    One, taking the copy protection off something you own should of course be fine. Beware the DMCA, which criminalizes more than infringement (for now).

    Two, I think the problem with the theft analogy is that we’re focusing on the rather irrelevant *thing* — the medium (a book? CD? MP3?) — ignoring what really counts — the creator.

    As a writer, I think it’s great for people to read whatever they want to quote stuff and mash up something new. Imperative, even. Copyright is shackles. OK: do it however you want, just compensate the one person or people who did what counted, creating the thing, as well as supporting cast (editors and so on). With widgets, that’s easy — you make the thing, sell it, you’re done. With a product infinitely copyable, selling it once isn’t going to work unless it’s for a lot of money. Copyright is the hack approach to addressing this.

    Third, a lot of the piracy apologists just like getting free stuff. Face it, free stuff is fun and convenient. Screw the semantics of what theft is; that’s what’s really going on.

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