Dissecting piracy

With the recent events of Swedish police raiding The Pirate Bay, I suddenly felt it was time to deal with this issue once and for all. I will try to dissect the phenomena of piracy, it’s legality and first and foremost – what I think about it, because I’m not so sure. Let’s see what I can conclude a few paragraphs down…

First, a short intro to the problem for those less technologically inclined: copyrighted material is distributed on the internet as digital files. The technology used most of the time is called BitTorrent. It’s a technique where you download files in many small parts from other people all over the world. For example, when you download a movie, you might connect to 100 people in the world having this movie on their computer and then download pieces of it until you can assemble the full movie.

The Pirate Bay is a Swedish web site that keeps track of these movies. It contains the information needed to find people with movies – but it does not contain any copyrighted material in itself. It’s just like an address book to people with data, most of it being copyrighted, but not all of it. So in any case, TPB (The Pirate Bay) cannot be accused of hosting copyrighted material, which is a common misconception. However, they are clearly giving some kind of aid to people wanting to download illegal material. However, to what extent can you blame TPB for providing a service that can be misused (and mainly is being misused)?

A typical comparison here: Google searches the web for content. It doesn’t make any difference between legal content or illegal. It makes it very easy to find for example movies, music or just texts and even links to these. However, nobody is blaming Google for making it possible to download illegal material. The difference with TPB is of course that Google is mainly used for legal purposes, while TPB is mainly used for illegal ones. This is not built into their systems, this is just how users prefer to use the different services. It will be interesting to see how the legal matters turn out with TPB. There have been cases about linking to illegal material in Sweden (that is, not providing the material itself, just the links to it) and in that case it was judged as legal. If that still holds, TPB is not doing anything illegal.

This is all part of a much bigger issue. Thanks to digital technology, anything that can be digitized (music, text, images, etc) can be copied with almost no cost at all (while traditionally, copying books would cost money for paper and printing). However, it’s not free – copying and distributing data requires certain capacity of networks and computers which people gladly pay for, such as broad band and large storage capacity.

So my point of view about this? My basic political and philosophical guide line is to be cynical. And this tells me that no matter what, humans in general mostly cares about money. That’s why economies keeps going around. Downloading material is not an act of morality or immorality. It’s an economical act. People recognize that you with a few clicks (and the previously mentioned computer capacities) can get stuff for “free”, instead of walking away to a store and pay lots of money for it. I say “free”, because a typical user would pay like 20 Euros or more per month for broadband and storage. It’s not free, just cheaper.

So what’s the difference to stealing the CD:s from the store? That’s cheap too, right? Well, people can value risks too. And generally, stealing physical objects from stores are considered risky. The cost is too high, so it’s not a viable option. However, the risks of downloading are very small, and therefore people can accept this. To put it differently – people steal when it’s affordable. You might bring morals into this now, saying that people prefer not stealing because it’s immoral. Although this might be true, I am sure that humans in general are more concerned about the risks of stealing rather than being immoral. The immorality is just a way to perveive the risks – the risk of being seen as a criminal and treated as a criminal by society.

Let me present a short scenario. If all you knew stole CD:s from the store, and there had never been a case of anyone getting caught, wouldn’t you steal one too? I’m sure you would. I definately would. It’s like driving too fast – most people do it because they think the risk is managable – they perceive the win (getting there faster) as larger than the loss (the risk of crashing or getting caught by police). I’m not saying people measure risks correctly, but what’s interesting is what people think, not the facts.

The Industry, that is, the recording labels and the copyright holders might be complaining about this. They have two basic economical approaches to this – make piracy more expensive by adding risks to it, or make their product (legal material) a more viable alternative. This is just basic competition. Make your own product look better, or the competitors product look worse. Or both. And that’s exactly what happens today, but the Industry has so far not fully recognized the potential of making their product look better. They keep harassing file sharing people to raise the risk – to make people afraid of getting caught. Unless they manage to drastically change the law, this will not be enough. Too many people are downloading to actually prosecute them all, however, if they make it look dangerous to download, they will make their legal product look better in the competition.

What they have to do to survive is, however, to make their product better. They have to do what Apple already did – make it as easy as file sharing to get music, and make it cheaper. And people put value in downloading legal music, both because of lesser risks and better morality (it’s after all, the same thing). So people can accept paying a little more for legal alternatives. But the gap is still big – paying 99 cents per song or 0 cents per song?

So, how about my opinion? I download copyrighted material all the time. I have not bought one legal song or CD the last 6 years, if not more. Still I have thousands of songs on my computer. It has been about economics for me all the time. When I first came to HK, suddenly all my file sharing activites stopped, because the network here uses technology to stop it. I had to look for alternatives. I started buying movies – both pirated ones for 1 Euro a piece or the real deal for a few Euros more in the DVD stores. Of course I prefer legal stuff, but only to a certain extent. I wont pay more than 10 Euros for a movie, but I can pay a few Euros for a DVD, which offers me less risk, better quality and a nice cover compared to downloading.

I predict, which is not a very difficult predicion, that piracy is here to stay, because it’s simple economy. The technology makes it so cheap that traditional methods of distribution (CDs, DVDs, etc) won’t hold for much longer. It’s like comparing traveling by car to riding a horse – and I’m sure the horse salesmen didn’t like the cars when they arrived. The record labels just have to accept the fact and move on to new technology, as well as accepting the fact that piracy can’t be fought with force alone – the Industry need to make their own product worth the money. I for one will keep “stealing” as long as it’s economical, and to be honest, I’m not the least sad for the copyright holders that I’m “stealing” from – because they too have to adapt to new technology. Using new technology, they can bypass the whole record label industry and make good money. If not, they can at least put some pressure on their labels to stop losing their money, because you can’t blame the consumers for a bad business policy…

4 thoughts on “Dissecting piracy”

  1. Nice text! Really enjoyed reading it. I’m still curious about what you think about how DRM can affect things. Given that the major hardware companies start putting DRM stuff into hardware (monitors that blur non-DRM material and so on), I can see that the could accually succeed.

  2. I don’t think DRM will win. Software based DRM will not work, it hasn’t worked so far. Software can always be bypassed. Hardware DRM requires closed systems – and there will probably always be manufacturers that see the profit of selling DRM-less hardware. Sure, there is a potential danger, but I doubt the manufacturers manage to agree on a good technology that can’t be bypassed.

  3. Hello!

    Nice article. I found your blog through Technorati, which I’ve just started using, when I searched for people linking to my page. It’s always fun to realize people actually read what you’re writing. You’re involved in Noir, right, with the web page design, is it?

    Anyway, I agree completely with everything you say on piracy. There are some Swedish sites for legal downloading, SF Anytime (streaming), Publiken.se (downloading), and I’ve read articles on Universal Pictures experimenting with downloading in the UK. Publiken.se is really new, so they don’t have a lot of movies at the moment. The Universal Picture deal seems really stupid, since they’re going to sell the downloadable file and send a physical DVD copy for the price of $35. That way you don’t get the benefits of downloading: cheap price and avoiding unnecessary physical artifacts.

    Apparently Warner Brothers has struck a deal with Bit Torrent to use the same technology for paying and downloading, which sounds cool. If only the price could be like $1 for a TV-episode and $2-4 for a full-length film I think a lot of people would chose the legal alternative because it’s easier, more reliable and you know what you get.

  4. Welcome to my blog :) I’m involved in Noir, and so are you – which means we must be colleagues 😉 I enjoy reading your blog, especially the short movie reviews.

    Anyhow – Universal Music Group just launched a press release where they promise free, ad-based multimedia downloading. This is exactly the kind of attempts I was looking for – if this works out, it shows the industry is learning after all. When the only difference between piracy and legal downloading is advertising and some DRM in the files, the choice isn’t as obvious as before. So, go SpiralFrog!

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