Why Can’t People Recognize That There Are Different Kinds Of Piracy?

Jan 26th, 2009 // 11 Comments

One of the odder impulses in this whole endless debate about digital music is the lionization of the pirate. In some cases, this is understandable: Certainly most of the poor souls who have seen their lives turned upside down by RIAA lawsuits deserve sympathy, and you can even understand how misbegotten youths might admire the particular outlaw swagger of some of the more brazen torrenters, even as we’re left to wonder how being a bad-ass on the Internet became cool. But copyfighters’ rush to rationalize and legitimize piracy has brought us to some strange places. Take the argument, put forth on Artists House Music, that tries to argue that piracy is not the result of things that formerly cost money being available for free, but of uneven release dates. The unfortunate example used to illustrate this theory is… Russia.

Drawing a comparison between a worldwide software distribution system called Valve and iTunes, Cooper writes:

Valve has managed to be highly profitable in a floundering market sector, mirroring in many ways the success of iTunes by building a digital distribution platform that is convenient and instantly accessible by a global market. In so doing Valve has cut out the heart of the reason why piracy takes place in the first place: supply that doesn’t meet demand fast enough. In the bad old days, different markets received their product at different times. Customers in Russia, for example, would have to wait as long as 6 months to get their hands on a release that their American counterparts already have. As a result, the piracy rate amongst Russian consumers was sky high. Before the implementation of officially sanctioned digital distribution, there was absolutely no way around this. Physical product takes simply too much time to move through physical space.

Now, there is no denying that a lot of piracy happens overseas. And, sure, maybe some of that would be alleviated if release dates were uniform. But in Russia? A country that was, until recently, essentially controlled by the mob? It really seems strange to say that a country with a well-developed distribution system for illegal goods would suddenly turn to legitimate versions if they were available, especially since those legitimate versions would have to cost more than the pirated versions.

When people are getting their pirated goods for free, it’s possible to argue that some of this traffic is the result of pirated versions being available before real versions. But when the piracy is a for-profit enterprise, it seems ludicrous to chalk its success up to anything besides basic economics: pirated versions are cheaper and readily available. In India, pirates will take John Grisham’s name and put it on a book he didn’t write, and sell it alongside legitimate copies. How does this have anything to do with release dates?

So let’s draw some lines. At one end of the moral spectrum are the consumers of these for-profit pirated goods, who are at least willing to pay some money for a product, but understandably want it cheaper. Next you might put casual downloaders who just wanted to check out some music and it was easier to do it for free, but who still buy a decent amount of media. Then let’s say people who systematically download pirated music and movies are next, because they probably shouldn’t be doing that. And then finally there are the large-scale pirating operations devoted to reproducing and selling copyrighted material without the author seeing any of the profits. There are markedly different motivations and outcomes here. So why do they all have to be legitimate? Why do they all have to be the logical outgrowth of the bad business practices of the major labels, rather than the result of rogue governments, black markets, and different legal protections for copyright in different countries? The whole debate seems to be awfully black and white.

Pirates As Underserved Customers: Borrowing Thoughts From Another Industry [Artists House Music]


  1. Gnosis

    I think the type of media being pirated is also a consideration. For example: US TV shows that won’t be aired overseas for half a year. I always see that people are torrenting these the next day and am puzzzled as to why anyone would bother downloading this when it’s available streaming elsewhere (See Comedy Central and Hulu). But in the comments you will see that people in Australia are stoked to get this stuff from the UK and US months earlier than was ever possible before.

  2. DocStrange

    @Gnosis: Or for that matter, “Doctor Who” here in the US. I’m a huge fan of the show, but Sci-Fi Channel does not show the 10 minute shorts that have been done for Children in Need for the past three seasons. I have to illegally download those because there’s no other way to see them. Not only that, but it looks like they won’t show the Holiday episodes that are being done in lieu of a season in the last half of 2008 and all of 2009 until the next season in 2010. So if I didn’t use something like Surfthechannel, i’ll have to wait 14 months to legally see something that first aired in December 2008.

  3. Audif Jackson Winters III

    I agree that there’s no monolithic morality to piracy. I disagree with you on the moral scale you’ve outlined, though … I don’t think that the people who consume for-profit pirated goods are at least culpable end of the spectrum, because without them, the large-scale pirates wouldn’t exist, and presumably they are even less likely to “try and buy” than those who sample stuff they download off the internet.

  4. revmatty

    Interesting that digital media makes obviates the need for a distinction between ‘pirated’ (usually additional pressings made at a factory by an unscrupulous manager/owner and sold off in lots, but still undeniably the same article as the legal object) and ‘counterfeit’ (the Grisham example above is one, but copies made from a commercial copy and sold at flea markets is another (e.g. get a CD, burn off a bunch of copies and slap an inkjet printed label on it into a cd case with a cheap inkjet printed one sided insert)).

  5. KurticusMaximus

    @Audif Jackson Winters III: Small-scale downloaders certainly create the market for large-scale piraters, but that doesn’t mean they don’t belong at the less-culpable end of the spectrum.

    Plenty of college kids will experiment with a handful of illegal drugs this year, and that creates part of the market for drug cartels. But that doesn’t put them much closer together on the culpability scale.

    Plus, I think the ubiquitousness of low-level downloading needs to be a factor. At some point, the whole “just because everyone does it doesn’t make it right” thing doesn’t really cut it. At this point, it’s like speeding- sure, it’s still wrong (and illegal), but it’s become so ridiculously common that society basically accepts it. But while that commonality protects those of us who routinely go 5-10 miles over the speed limit (or download a handful of albums every few months), it doesn’t cover reckless drivers breaking 90 in a 45 (or piracy rings pumping out hundreds of movies a year).

  6. Anonymous

    Tons of musicians want you to buy their CD, but will download the shit out of other peoples music. Go figure.

  7. Audif Jackson Winters III

    @KurticusMaximus: I agree with you, I just didn’t completely agree with the logic of the original post, which seems to give consumers of for-profit pirated goods some absolution because they at least paid *something*.

  8. Lax Danja House

    @KurticusMaximus: I’m not sure where you’re going with this metaphor. There are good reasons why people push the speed limit and why others follow suit. There’s no equivalent in illegal downloading, unless you count the dubious social pressure of hearing leaks as soon as they come out.

  9. KurticusMaximus

    @Lax Danja House: It was just the easiest metaphor to find.

    Besides, the purpose of the metaphor wasn’t meant to excuse either activity, since both are illegal. It was simply to highlight the fact that when an overwhelming majority of people commit relatively minor crimes, those crimes lose social significance.

  10. sparkletone

    Nitpicking: Valve is a software company they make games. And a digital distribution platform called Steam.

    Steam is the thing aping iTunes (a little. Kinda. Sorta. Maybe.).

  11. sparkletone

    Further: Piracy, incidentally, isn’t the only thing making it hard for makers of PC games.

    Consoles provide an experience that is in most ways as good as, a few ways worse, and a few ways better than the PC. Consoles aren’t eating PC games’ lunch the way digital distribution is killing the CD but it’s not too far off.

    If you want to make money in PC games these days, you either need to be Popcap (who make hilariously, stultifyingly successful casual games), Blizzard (World of Warcraft) or, well. Valve.

    There are small scale successes, but those are the big 3 massive ones that I can think of. I guess The Sims franchise was huge for a while, but I think that’s dried up, and Spore’s not gone anywhere.

    I don’t think the market for PC games is where the music market can/will/should be any time soon.

    Music and movies seem far more related, in as much as movies are headed for the same abyss music’s in/near. The only things keeping movies safe at this point is the fact that most people don’t have or aren’t willing to invest in the amount of hard drive space and download times it takes to get movies. It’ll be interesting to see if free (or at the very least, legal) streaming options help stave any of that off.

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