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 :-(


Sarah Ahiers said...

For me it leans more towards #1. BUT - that's purely because i'm super lazy and have no real clue how to go about pirating something. Otherwise, probably #2 with an occasional #4

Stacy McKitrick said...

I chose 1, but I could see a point with 2.

Matthew MacNish said...

No comment. Every time I talk about piracy, people get mad at me.

Seabrooke said...

I wish it were possible to pick more than one of those answers, because they're not all mutually exclusive and I feel more than one situation applies.

I love your previous posts on piracy, incidentally. That's pretty much my own thoughts on it. I figure most pirates won't or can't obtain it legally for one reason or another, so it's pointless to get upset about it.

Cap'n Heine said...

I say #2 because (and I was thinking more about video game piracy here) of what's known as abandonware. The software is so old that you couldn't find a legal copy to buy if your life depended on it. In that one case I'm okay with pirating.

But here's a question for you that I struggle with: Is lending something to someone the same as helping them pirate it? They're (most likely) not going to buy whatever it is once they're done with it, so you could have cost the creators a sale by lending your copy.

Matthew MacNish said...

Your brother makes a good point. As a writer, I have to think lending books is good. If the person likes it, they may not but a copy of that book, but hopefully they'll buy a different book by that author.

Erik Winter said...

Re: lending books


Re: abandoneware

There are fewer and fewer cases of this nowadays with every IP owner releasing some barely ported version of old games to Android and iOS. I wonder if this will be a relevant corner-case soon?

Re: the ordering of the options

I don't know if the ordering of the options was an implicit statement of ethical hierarchy. If it was, I might be tempted to switch the orders of 3 and 4 due to the previous exchange of payment for goods suggesting a willingness of the user to provide compensation to the creator. It's tricky, an SD-version of an iTunes movie is arguably less functional in certain ways than a DVD copy (a certain definition of portability, etc.). And there are certainly shades of ethical considerations in this category: substitutions (iTunes to DVD) vs upgrades (VHS to DVD). However, I still would consider the willingness to pay for the product to be a marker that more closely resembles the ethics of #2 rather than the ethics of #3.

In all likelihood, the intention of the user in each of these situations is what primarily determines the ethics of their decisions. And that's a box that I can't hope to see inside.

Daniel Smith said...

My answer is ... #8!

This is a dangerous question. The way I explain fair use to my students when covering copyright is ... "show me the money."

In practical terms, no one cares and you won't be taken to court *IF* the "owner" doesn't lose any money. (And sometimes piracy is even encouraged if the "owner" ends up making more.)

As real world proof, I refer everyone to the case of the "jk wedding dance". Go to the website and read the letter. Then go watch the video on YouTube. Finally, answer this question: Why, oh why, didn't Chris Brown's lawyers send YouTube a take-down notice? (Hint: You don't need a hint.)

Adam Heine said...

@Erik: The order is as close to an ethical hierarchy as I could get, but yeah, they don't all lend themselves well to a hierarchy.

Mandy P.S. said...

For a long time I was a strict supporter of #1 (NEVER), but as I get older I become more and more of a #2, which is what I answered to this poll.

When I can buy something with money, I will. Heck, I'll even wait the time for it to come to my country (which is why I have no yet watched Season 5 of Merlin or Season 3 of Downton Abbey, and why I waited forever for several Sara Douglass books). But sometimes it's just not fair or possible.

A recent (but silly, I'll grant you) example was the nine minutes of Star Trek Into the Darkness that was put before The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at the IMAX Release. I would gladly have paid the money to see The Hobbit in IMAX. As it was, I paid $15.00 for the first showing in my town, saw it in 3D 48 fps and waited five hours to get a good seat. I'm that level of crazy. So I would have definitely paid a few extra bucks for IMAX. But there is not a single IMAX theater in my entire state (woo, New Mexico!). So I either would have had to have driven eight hours or fly somewhere. I love Tolkien and Star Trek, but not that much.

So when someone posted on youtube the first nine minutes of Star Trek that they had video taped before an IMAX screening on their phone, I watched it. And I didn't feel guilty at all.

A silly example? Yes. But that and watching Doctor Who a few years ago when they had a six month delay between BBC and BCCA are the extent of my pirating experience. (Thankfully now Doctor Who gets a same day airing in the states.)