Showing posts with label piracy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label piracy. Show all posts

When Is Piracy Okay?

It's been a while since we talked about piracy. I don't have anything new to say on the subject, but I thought we could have a little discussion starter. So first, a poll: When is it okay to pirate something?

The question is about ethics, not legality. The legality answer is easy and objective (for most countries, the answer is "never").

1) Never. Self-explanatory, I think.

2) When there is no way to get it, even with money. For example, your favorite TV show is geo-blocked and is not available on iTunes. Netflix and Hulu are likewise geo-blocked. You couldn't pay for a copy even if you wanted to.

3) When there is no way to get it, except with a lot of money. The publisher of a book you want refuses to release an e-book version. You could get a paper copy, but within shipping it'll cost like $40. For one book.

4) When you've already paid for one version of it, but you want another version as well. You bought that TV show you want on iTunes, but you want a DVD so the kids can watch without tying up your computer.

5) When you could get a version of it, but it's not what you want. You don't actually want it on iTunes, since iTunes sucks on Windows and you'd rather watch it on your TV.

6) When you could get what you want, but the owner of the property is a money-grubbing corporate tool. Why pay for it when you can stick it to the man?

7) Whenever the heck you want. It's a free country. Also self-explanatory.

Feel free to elaborate your answer in the comments. It's a sticky issue, after all.

I'll be honest: I answered (2). We try very hard to lean toward NEVER (seeing as we are not, in fact, poor mountain villagers that eat only rice and chilis), but we also have a So You Think You Can Dance addiction that Fox won't let us feed :-(

Legend of Korra

Apparently the follow-up series to the greatest thing ever airs tomorrow. I'm going to have to ask the entire internet to not talk about it until they make DVDs and ship a set to Thailand.

Man, being a commodore sucks.

How Pirates Are Born

(Again, because I actually write about pirates, I have to specify that I'm talking about the lame kind of piracy today, not the swashbuckling kind. I will, however, use the swashbuckling kind to make my point.)

Before I get into this, understand I am generally against piracy. This is not a post about why piracy is okay. This is a post about why it happens, and what can (and cannot) be done about it.

So, say media producers -- Random House, NBC, Nickelodeon, Blizzard Entertainment, etc. -- are the governor, and their media is their smart, beautiful, confident daughter. Like any father, the governor wants his daughter to marry the right man, and he'd rather not have to pay a pirate's ransom to do it.

Consumers, then, generally fall into three categories: pirates, commodores, and Will Turner.

Real pirates don't actually care about the governor's daughter. They just want the ransom. The governor goes to great lengths to protect his daughter from these ruffians -- sometimes even making life more difficult for law-abiding citizens -- but in the end, if Captain Jack Sparrow really wants to kidnap and ransom her, he will.

These are the guys who will always rip off your media and distribute it for free (sometimes even if it's free already!). It doesn't matter what DRM or geo-blocking you put up, or where you release it, they can and will get their hands on it. These are the guys that make DRM almost worthless.

Fortunately, they represent a very small percentage of Actual People. Also fortunate: because they're never going to pay for your stuff anyway, they don't count as lost sales. That means media producers can effectively ignore them. Seriously, your daughter is fine, just pay the ransom and move on.

Of course the governor wants his daughter to marry the commodore. He's wealthy, has a good title, and most importantly, he always obeys the law.

It's the same in the media world; the commodores will always obey the law and terms of service you provide. They don't know what torrents or VPN services are, and they don't want to know.

Unfortunately, like real pirates, commodores represent a very small percentage of the population.

Will is a really nice guy. He's honest, strong, he works hard, and he hates pirates.

At least, he used to hate pirates, until the governor's daughter disappeared. When he asked the governor about it, the governor just shrugged and shook his head. So Will did the only thing he could do: he turned to the real pirates for help.

I think media producers would like to believe that most people are either pirates or commodores. Unfortunately, that's not true. Most people -- I'm thinking 80% or more -- are Will Turner. We don't like pirates. We don't want to be pirates. But at the same time, we really, really love the governor's daughter, and we'll do anything to see her.

If the media Will wants is available for a reasonable price, then he doesn't have a problem. But when his favorite TV show is geo-blocked, or the eBook costs more than the paperback, or the movie isn't released in his country, it forces Will to choose between the governor's daughter and the obscure ethics of copyright infringment.

And since Will is just a humble blacksmith, and there are a lot of fancy words in those terms of service, he usually ends up infringing.

Once someone pirates one thing, the ethics get fuzzier. The software is still on his computer, and downloading twenty movies is as easy as one. Will's unlikely to turn into a full-blown pirate (since that requires some savvy), but he probably won't see things the same as the commodore again.

What can media producers do? Provide the same service as the pirates, or better.

One of the most common reasons for digital media to be blocked from certain countries is a fear of piracy. "You can't release in Russia! You're just asking to be pirated!"

As game developer Gabe Newell discovered, that is ridiculous. The real pirates are masters of distribution. What you geo-blocked for US only, they have released to the world. Yesterday. When you don't release something in a foreign territory, you are only removing the pirates' competition.

But the pirates are not hurting your sales. What hurts sales is when Will Turner goes to your website or walks into the store looking for a legal copy and is told he can't have it because he lives in Russia or Thailand or Canada (seriously, guys, you're geo-blocking Canada?).

Will Turner (points at self) is your fan. He's willing to sit through commercials or pay a small fee to consume your work legally. Will wants to support you, but you have to give him the option!

When you force people to choose between pirating a show or not watching it at all, many will choose piracy. Your terms of service just aren't as attractive.

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?

Piracy and Other Things that are not Theft

One of the quickest ways to get a (media) pirate angry is to equate piracy with stealing. "Piracy is not theft!" they cry. Theft removes the original, thus making it so the true owner can no longer use it. But when you pirate something, you're only making a copy. The original is untouched.

Legally and semantically, they're right. Piracy is not theft. But there's a justification implied: that because the owner still has the original, the copier didn't do anything wrong.

We talked a lot in the comments yesterday about how the negative effects of piracy are not as bad as we think, but that doesn't necessarily make it right. For example, here's a list of other things that, like piracy, are also not theft:
  1. Hacking into someone's secured wireless network.
  2. Breaking into a government facility and copying down top secret information.
  3. Sneaking into a movie theater.
  4. Forging a plane ticket (unless the plane is full, of course, then you're stealing a seat).
  5. Plagiarism.
  6. Writing a program that steals rounded-off fractions of financial calculations (yes, like Office Space).
  7. Hacking into an Air Traffic Control computer and changing the schedules.
  8. Slander.
  9. Most acts of federal treason.
  10. Kicking someone in the nuts.
So, yes, I agree that piracy is not theft. But that doesn't justify it.

Opinions on Piracy (and Some Data)

I've decided this week is going to be piracy week here at Author's Echo. Not the cool kind of piracy where you swing from the rigging and swash and buckle and stick it to the mean, oppressive, royal navy. But the lame kind, in which copyrights are infringed and authors get all upset over lost sales.

Apparently, I have a lot to say on the topic, but I hope to contain it to three posts (so I don't have to bore you with it again for a while). First, some of my opinions on the subject, so you know where I'm coming from, and maybe where I'm going.

Tomorrow's a little more fun.
  • Pirates are not bad people. That has to be said up front. I have lots of friends who pirate stuff (I live in Thailand, remember?), and I still like them. I still like you. And heck, even I sometimes take advantage of "gray areas." Just, uh, don't expect a high five from me because you "stuck it to the man."
  • Most arguments for piracy are empty justifications. Just like telling myself I can eat a chocolate cake because I ran a mile today, justifications don't make a bad thing okay. (Note: I don't actually tell myself this. I just eat the friggin' cake and don't run at all.)
  • Piracy is illegal. There are gray areas, and some things are legal in some countries, but for the most part, if you download something people usually pay for? Yes, that's illegal.
  • Piracy is not worth getting angry about. For one thing, there's no strong evidence that pirated downloads = lost sales. Certainly some are, but I think for the most part, if we magically figured out how to prevent piracy forever, it would result in approximately the same number of sales. Getting angry about piracy, on the other hand, is likely to lose paying customers more than it stops the illegal ones.
  • Pirates are not doing authors any favors. It's often argued that piracy leads to new readers. The data (what little there is) doesn't support this argument either. Certainly some pirates turn into paying fans, but most don't, and not enough to justify the practice.

For those last two, Tobias Buckell does a great job discussing the data here. He also sums up his opinion (and mine) thusly:
"I believe piracy [has] a neutral effect from all the studying I've done, but also that standing up to declare you didn't pay for it for whatever mental judo justification you have means you're being kind of a dick." -- Tobias Buckell
To that end:

To reiterate: pirates are not bad people and I still like you. I don't want to beat up on pirates this week, though neither do I want to imply that piracy doesn't hurt anybody. Mostly I want to be clear that the justifications for piracy are just that: justifications -- something humans are very good at composing.

Feel free to disagree with me in the comments, especially if you've got good (non-anecdotal) data to contradict anything in the links here. Of course, you can agree with me too. We love that sort of thing around here.

What's DRM Good For?

Wednesday's post garnered some very awesome comments, making good points for both sides: paper and e-books. A couple of them got me thinking about DRM, and what makes it bad or good. That's what we're talking about today.

First, a definition. DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. Once upon a time, media was produced as physical objects. You had to have a printing press or a recording studio or a pinball parts factory to copy your favorite book/song/game for your friends. Today, software, music, movies, games, and books exist as strings of 1's and 0's, on machines designed to copy those strings at ridiculous speeds, all connected to each other via networks that send 1's and 0's at the speed of light.

Point is, it's easy to copy stuff, and DRM is the software that makes it harder.

The best argument against DRM is that it can always be cracked. There is no such thing as the perfect security system, so why bother having that system at all? Especially when DRM hurts consumers more than the pirates.

The problem with that argument is that piracy is more about culture--about thought--than it is about the law or the means to enforce it. If digital media had nothing to protect it, it would be hard for even the most law-abiding citizen to justify not copying their library for a friend.

But the second half of the argument is spot on: DRM often makes things more inconvenient for the paying consumer than it does for the illegal pirate. So this is what I think good DRM should look like:

  1. When your stuff is lost (computer crashed, dropped the Kindle in the bathtub, someone stole your iPod, etc), you should be able to get it back without a hassle.
  2. You should be allowed to use your stuff on whatever device you prefer, even if it's not the same device as the company you bought the media from. So you should be able to read B&N e-books on a Kindle, or listen to iTunes music on that cheap MP3 player you bought years ago. If I paid for it, I don't want to lose money just because they pulled a Borders on me.
  3. You should be allowed to use your stuff on a reasonable number of devices. If you own a laptop, iPad, iPod, and desktop computer, you shouldn't have to remember which one is licensed to watch those episodes of House you bought.
  4. It should be easy to register/unregister devices so you can use your stuff wherever you happen to be. In other words, you shouldn't have to uninstall MS Word on your old computer before you can activate it on your new one.

    The underlying assumption here is that the people who paid for the digital media want to follow the rules. When a customer asks if he can download his music again, or explains that he deleted his old copy of MS Word before deactivating it, he's not trying to pull one over on the company. That'd be like the lamest way to pirate stuff ever!

    The real pirates already do everything I listed above, for the low price of hanging around seedy webpages and having to scan for viruses every other day. They're not going to e-mail tech support asking for someone else's legitimate library--they already have what they want from Pirate Bay.

    Can it be done? Many DRM schemes already do some or all of the things I've listed. Many don't. Those that don't are hurting paying customers and doing absolutely nothing to pirates (except maybe to convert a few more to piracy). I think we need DRM, but I don't think it has to be so draconic.

    What do you think? I'd love to hear your opinion in the comments.

    Piracy Part 2: Culture Change

    On Wednesday, I talked about how piracy isn't just a legal matter. It's an entire culture that believes digital media should be cheap or free, and that if it isn't, they have a right to pirate it.

    How can you fight something like this? How do you fight a culture that looks at you like a freak just for obeying the law? I don't know how to change a whole culture, but I know it starts with the individual.

    Do the right thing. It's hard to fight piracy if you pirate (though I guess there are levels of piracy, and you're welcome to fight at whatever level you're comfortable with, aye?). It can be super-hard to tell your friends you don't want to borrow their pirated DVDs (I know!), but doing so raises their awareness that maybe NOT everyone does it. It shows them some people still care (even if they think you're weird for caring).

    Talk about piracy. Some people may have no idea what they're doing is illegal. Others figure that since "everybody" does it, it's okay. The more people talk about it, online or elsewhere, the more others will get that it's illegal. But while you're talking, remember...

    Don't judge. This is probably the most important thing to remember. It's easy to care about piracy laws if you don't own anything pirated. But you have to understand that when you say, "Pirating is illegal," some people hear, "You're not a good person unless you throw away all your favorite stuff." Keep that in mind when you bring it up, and don't make it worse by hating on people who do it.

    Know the law. There are a lot of myths about what is and is not legal, so it helps to do your homework. Loaning a book? Legal. Burning songs you own? Usually legal. Giving that burned CD to a friend? Probably not legal.

    Support anti-piracy laws. One of the things that encouraged my wife's conviction was when the police cracked down on some of the illegal movie shops here in Chiang Mai. The law won't solve the problem, but it's easier to do the right thing if the authorities are doing something about it too.

    I mean, I don't know how culture changes, but I figure this is a good start, yeah? What do you think? (By the way, there's no part 3, so if this mini-series was making you feel guilty don't worry. I'm done.)

    Piracy Part 1: Free Culture

    Piracy is a difficult topic for me. On one hand, I like free stuff and I'm a professional at justifications (we all are, really). On the other hand, the logical flaws in those justifications irk me no end. Plus, you know, my conscience.

    Up until recently, we owned a fair amount of pirated stuff -- movies, music, software... Not because we are evil people, but because we live in a free culture. I can buy a DVD of any movie or TV show for $3, not in a back alley, but at a kiosk in the mall. To find legal software here, I have to walk past four illegal shops just for the privilege of paying 30x the price.

    As we got rid of our illegal stuff, I realized the fight against piracy is not just about enforcing the law. Legislation and enforcement is part of it, sure, but free culture is powered more than anything by belief.

    How do you fight it when your friend tells you about this awesome game that you just have to play with them. "Oh, I can't afford it," you say. "That's okay," they reply, "I made you a copy. Here."

    Or you're homeschooling your kids, but curriculum costs more than you make in a month. "Don't worry," your friend says, "I'll copy my books for you at Kinko's."

    Or say you love the TV show Babylon 5, but the entire box set is almost $300. What do you do when your friend gives you the whole set as a gift, knowing (because of the distorted disc labels and DVD jackets with Chinese on them) that he paid less than $50 for it?

    That's what free culture looks like. When we got rid of our pirated stuff, we heard a lot of comments like, "I wish I could do that," or "You're just throwing it away!" or "I don't know how you can live like that in Thailand." (And these were from the missionary community).

    When people believe that digital media is cheap to make, that corporations are extorting us, that everybody pirates and nobody gets hurt -- at that point it doesn't matter what the law is. People will look at you funny, even resent you, when you pay full price for stuff. In many ways, we're there already. I've got more to say, but that will have to wait until Friday.

    In the meantime, I'm curious, what is piracy like in your own community? Is it something people look down on, or is it considered normal? Does anyone do it? Does everyone do it?