Piracy FAQ

It's the end of piracy week. As you've seen, my opinions on piracy are mixed (or "balanced" or "wishy-washy," depending on your point of view). I don't like the practice, but I don't think it's worth getting upset about, but also I don't think it's something to be proud of.

Mostly, though, I don't like the justifications used to support piracy. Granted, the arguments against it aren't great either, but since they're supporting a mostly-reasonable law, I have less issue with them.

This post, then, addresses some of the more common arguments for piracy. In FAQ form.

1) Is it okay to pirate something if --
Let me stop you for a sec. "Okay" is kinda vague. I think you mean to ask whether it's legal, or maybe whether it's ethical, yeah?

2) Okay, smarty pants. Is it legal to pirate something in certain situations?
In general, no. Never. Though apparently it depends where you live. I've heard it's okay in the Netherlands. If you get caught in New Zealand, they shut off your internet. It just depends.

3) Fine. It's illegal, but isn't it ethical in some situations?
This is something of a gray area. Your sense of "ethical" might differ from mine.

I see it as a spectrum. On one end, there's the guy in Thailand who makes $7 a day selling computers. He can't afford to pay $500/copy to put Windows on each computer (and if he could, his customers couldn't afford to buy it). If he doesn't sell computers, his family doesn't eat (at $7 a day, they barely eat as it is). So for him to buy the $3 version of Windows around the corner, and install it on every machine he sells, could be considered ethical.

A little farther on the spectrum, you have the poor mountain villager who makes $1/day and has a stack of copied VCDs next to their ancient DVD player. Those VCDs aren't legal, maybe aren't ethical (since they're not necessary to survive), but I'm not going to begrudge the entertainment of a village that only eats rice and chilis most days.

Near the other end of the specturm, you've got the middle-class American with his $2,000 computer system, his "low-end" job that pays $100/day, his easy access to libraries, his unrestricted Amazon and Hulu and Pandora, and his difficult decision of whether to order pizza or to microwave burritos whenever he's hungry. Unless this guy's got some kind of medical condition in which he must read 20 hours a day or he'll die, I'm going to say his piracy is both unethical and kinda silly.

But hey, that's just me.

4) Dude, isn't that kind of harsh?
Probably, yeah. Sorry. My point is we need to take a broader worldview before we decide our lives are hard enough to justify downloading things that we can reasonably afford and don't need.

5) But e-books are so expensive, and I can't even loan them out or give them away. How is that fair?
It's not fair. It's capitalism. I think it's unfair that I have to spend $1,000 to visit my parents, even though the plane flies there whether I paid for the ticket or not. I think it's unfair that the Thai goverment requires I make $16,000/year to "support my wife" and therefore stay in the country. Fairness is subjective, but fair or not, it's not okay for me to forge a plane ticket or to stay in Thailand illegally.

If you think e-book prices are unfair, don't buy them. If enough people agree with you, the publishers will eventually get the hint and lower their prices. Whether they do or not, the perceived unfairness of it does not make piracy any more ethical.

6) What if I want to pay for it, but I can't? Like if the publisher doesn't release an e-version, or they don't release it in my country?
It doesn't change the ethics of it.

7) But what if I payed for the hard copy and want an e-version, too?
It still doesn't change anything. Look, I would love it if life worked this way, but it doesn't. I owned Star Wars on VHS for years, but they didn't let me sneak into the theater for the re-release, or take home the original-release DVD edition for free. Companies release products the way they want and price them the way they want. Unless I pay for it, there is no justification that gives me a right to a similar-but-different product, no matter how much I might want it.

Companies release different versions of things for a reason. If you want the e-version, buy the e-version. If there isn't one, read something else.

8) What if I want to try it out? How else am I going to find new authors I like?
Try one or more of the following: libraries, Amazon's "Search Inside" feature, excerpts from the author's website, reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, read a few pages in a bookstore, ask your friends.

If you aren't satisfied with these, maybe don't try that author out at all. It's not like you have to.

9) What's the difference between reading for free at the library and downloading?
Libraries buy the books they loan, and loaning physical books is legal. There is no question of ethics there. They pay the authors and follow the law.

10) Are pirates bad people?
No (and I'm sorry if I made anyone feel that way). There is not a single person on this planet who doesn't do mildly unethical things, then justify it after the fact.

If you know they're only justifications, we don't really have a problem. You pirate books, I'll break the speed limit (or eat my chocolate cake), and we'll still hang out afterward. Just don't tell me piracy is a good thing.

And, uh, maybe don't pirate my books, okay?


Donna Hole said...

Hmm, I re-wrote this several times and I'm not sure the final product was constructive, or fully understanding the meaning of your post.

But I read it Adam; and the last couple in the series.

You're a very deep thinker.


Matthew MacNish said...

The example I always use is this - mix tapes. If I own the vinyl, and I want to be able to listen to it in my car, I can connect my turntable to my PC, and make my own legal, perfectly ethical recording. Or ...

Authoress said...

I really, really, really like what you are saying here, and how are you saying it.

Have I mentioned lately that you are an awesome human? :)