Ok, ok. So suppose I am a pirate. How and when did my diabolical life of crime begin?
It all started when we first got the Apple IIc with the old floppy disks that were so easy to copy. My friends and I became masters of copying all of the games we could get our hands on. We even copied the programs for copying programs, which is so meta if you think about it.
It seems this culture of copying came rather naturally after the era of cassette tapes and recording stuff off of the radio. Eventually it moved to VHS and then made its way to mp3, to movies, to just about anything and everything. Of course it was one thing to copy a cheap analog copy off of the radio and play it until the wheels fell of the cassette. It sounded like crap anyway. But with the digitization of information, the ability to make perfect copies has now changed the entire landscape of what we consider to be theft.
I still haven’t completely processed my feelings on piracy, although I have sort of weened myself off most of the blatantly illegal stuff. I even have a legal copies of windows, running on my home computer. That’s a first!
The whole piracy debate sort of reminds me of the immigration problem in the US. Both sides have legitimate claims, and legitimate grievances. How do we attempt to find a fair solution? The illegals come to the US because we want them. We lure them in so that we can exploit them. So that we can benefit from their hard work. We don’t really mind that much if they are illegal because they provide us with something in return.
The same argument applies indirectly to piracy. The authors want us to use their product. Artists want us to hear their music. Windows, for example, could have shut down the illegal versions at any time had they wanted to, but they wanted something else even more. They wanted ubiquity in the market. They wanted people to come to depend on their product, even if it was an illegal copy. They preferred that you had a legal copy, but they would prefer you use an illegal copy of windows rather than try to use something else. That is a core issue here. We have long been led to believe that the free market is at the mercy of the merchant, whose rights must be protected at all costs. And that the buyer just has to accept the whims of the seller. But in reality it’s much more complex, the sellers owe the market just as much, for access to their customers. With the option to copy, some of the balance of power has been restored.
At the same time, we have to admit that artists and authors have put resources into their creations and deserve some protections on their investment. Where is our happy place?
I remember once on a copied version of a program whose name escapes me, the person who had hacked the program inserted a statement whenever you started the program reading something like “Making money off a program you have not paid for is immoral”. And that’s when I found the philosophical place that I have ever since occupied with regards to piracy. I have perhaps rationalized in my mind that this is a fair compromise, but I believe that this is the correct principle to guide our behaviors and our laws.
The truth is that a band that is trying to make a name for itself is only too happy to have people listen to its music for free. Without fans they cease to exist. Of course, without a revenue stream they also cease to exist, and that is where the balance of power lies. I still haven’t quite figured out what novelists will do, however, because reading is an individual experience. Hey, I didn’t say the the concept was perfect.
Being in Asia, the fear of getting caught for copying programs is pretty much nonexistent, and yet I feel a small pang of guilt when I stream a Lakers game or I occasionally watch movies of dubious origin. But when I rent a movie and have to watch 5 minutes of annoying clips on how piracy is wrong, I start wishing I had just downloaded it for free. I wonder whether I will ever truly and completely find redemption.