The subject of “piracy” seems to pop up on my radar every now and then. Since this is an issue I deal with directly, I thought I’d chime in with some of my thoughts on the subject.
I feel that the topic is fairly complex, because many of the arguments I’ve been reading online don’t address piracy directly. Rather, the articles seem to talk “around” the issue by trying to determine either “why” piracy is occurring or justify “why” content should be freely shared and distributed. So, for starters, I’d like to pose the question, “Why is piracy so confusing to define?”
Say I go into a brick-and-mortar store and I find the coolest pair of socks that I simply have to have. Whether or not I “should” steal the pair of socks isn’t the issue nor is it open to debate. What matters is what the law states. If, according to the law, I take that pair of socks and don’t pay for them, then I am breaking the law. With digital piracy, some people do not believe that downloading a product is the same thing as stealing because pirates are taking a “copy” of the physical product and the product is not removed from a website. However, just like there are laws that define what stealing is, there are also laws surrounding illegal downloads. Read Piracy: Online and On the Street via RIAA.com as just one example. For the purpose of this post, when I refer to piracy, I’m referring to the situation when someone downloads or shares an electronic product illegally, either for their own purposes or with the intent to distribute.
Unfortunately, the arguments that advocate piracy are not only convoluted, they are downright frustrating to people like me. I feel that people standing up on the “pro-piracy” platform are demanding free content and cheap prices in addition to unlimited electronic distribution. For whatever reason, it’s become some sort of revolutionary cry to “teach” businesses what’s what by taking something that normally requires payment. Do illegal downloads make businesses sit up and listen? Sure they do, which is why there’s a few piracy crack-downs that are in development as we speak. Already, some of the telecoms are negotiating with different businesses to block internet access based on piracy — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. While the law has not been able to keep up with the rapid changes in technology, the courts are working on it.
It’s no secret people are unhappy with the way that businesses, like the RIAA, are handling pricing and copyright in this digital age. Are copyright laws outdated? Yes. Do businesses need to adjust to the times? Absolutely. Are the laws challenging to understand? Yep. However, engaging in piracy and/or justifying illegal downloads is not a good solution, in part because “piracy” and “copyright reform” are really two, separate subjects that are being addressed in two, different worlds. Think of it this way: How is “I take without asking.” different from “What rights do I have to take?” If you don’t like the way the laws are now, then get involved! Contact your local representatives or join the appropriate advocacy group and help bring about positive changes.
Part of the reason why I have strong opinions on this subject is because piracy threatens the livelihood of the people who create the content you’re downloading illegally. Songwriters, artists, authors and others are directly affected by rampant online distribution of illegal content because of the way that they are getting paid. (If you want to see an interesting graphic, check out How Much do Music Artists Earn Online?.)
If an artist doesn’t get paid, then they can’t afford to keep creating their works. Remember, most artists (writers, musicians, etc.) get paid differently than people with full-time salaries. They often get paid by the download rather than by the hour. Do the math on that. Say an artist makes a ten percent royalty rate on a $4.99 product. Fifty cents may not seem like much to you, but it adds up quickly. The more people download a product illegally, the less money an artist makes, which means that they’ll have to work even harder to make up the difference. Most artists I know work well over forty hours a week just to be able to make ends meet.
As part of this discussion, I’d like to mention that William Aicher has written a book entitled Starving the Artist: How the Internet Culture of “Free” Threatens to Exterminate the Creative Class, and What Can Be Done to Save It. In the interest of full disclosure, I work on his team at Musicnotes, Inc. This work was not written as an off-handed anecdote, but from a business-minded individual that sees how the popular ideal of “free” threatens an artist’s ability to provide for themselves in order to keep creating. Also, I have seen the numbers and have heard horror stories from other artists that are directly affected by digital piracy. All in all, it is not pretty.
Of course, I can’t talk about piracy without briefly mentioning my thoughts on “free” products. Let me be extraordinarily clear on this: I believe that the topic of “free” is yet another conversation. For extra credit, check out my posts about Free, Freemies and the Undervaluation of Goods and Services, My Stance on Writing for Free and Puking Content, Plagiarism and Too Much Free.
In the end, I believe that it’s unfortunate that a lack of consumer education is affecting an author’s, artist’s and musician’s ability to do what they love to do in the way that they know how to do it. It is way too easy to point a finger and say that an artist is being “too greedy” or have long, sordid discussions about how the system is broken. The current system is the way things are right now, and that’s the one that we’re all trying to work with. Until things change, perhaps we can all push philosophy aside and simply abide by the rules.