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

mariasci | January 26, 2009 3:00 am

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]