Published: 2010-08-31

Aiding the Enemy

Note: This was originally posted to my Tumblr blog 31 Aug 2010.

I was participating in a blog-comments discussion about software prices and I happened to mention that I don't pirate copyrighted works. I don't download illegal music (Amazon is my friend) or movies and I don't pirate software. If something is too expensive, I just don't buy it.

I was literally laughed at by another poster and probably many more who didn't comment.

Intellectual property piracy has become so commonplace that, for many people, it is just the way the world works. If you want something, you download it.

I didn't bother responding to the comment, I was already pretty far off-topic, but the experience inspired me to jot down my thoughts on piracy and why I don't do it.

I have an incredibly dim view of the intellectual property situation in the United States. Copyright terms are far too long, damages for infringement are far too high, terrible patents are far to easy to get and far to expensive to overturn.

Most reasonable people agree that there is a problem. They also generally agree that at least part of the solution must involve a loosening of some of the laws. For example, carving out larger fair-use exceptions.

However, I think there is some disagreement among this group about the role of piracy.

Many people view piracy as a powerful argument in favor of rational IP reform. The argument goes that piracy is an indication that the wants of the consumers have been ignored, possibly for a very long time. I don't necessarily disagree with this.

However, the logical extension of this view is that the more piracy there is, the better, since it adds evidence in favor of reform.

But this raises some interesting questions: should we encourage piracy in markets where the established players place artificial limits on consumer choice? Is piracy a productive response to a lack of choice in the marketplace? Are "pirates" actually important social activists in disguise?

No.

Why? Because piracy actually hurts the cause of reform.

Oppression has a way of leading to reform. When people are held down their anger and frustration grow until they explode, sometimes productively, sometimes not.

Bad IP laws are a form of oppression. However, piracy is like a one-way safety valve, it makes the oppression hurt less without doing anything to eliminate it. A bit like taking ibuprofen when you have a brain tumor. The pain should drive you to seek treatment but since the medicine controls it you might choose not to until it is too late.

Since piracy allows consumers to get the music, movies, books and other works that they desire but that, due to a broken IP system, are not offered in the legitimate marketplace (or are not offered in an acceptable format) it assuages people who would otherwise become angry, and hopefully politically active.

Why should I write my congressman or educate myself on the topic and join a movement if I can achieve my ultimate goal (some type of media consumption) through piracy?

Piracy is a false solution to a very real problem.

The other key problem with piracy is that it feeds ammunition to the opponents of IP reform by providing shelter for politicians who support pro big-content legislation despite its clear negative impact on the overall economy.

There is nothing crooked or lazy politicians like more than a villain who doesn't vote, doesn't donate money to campaigns and can't do any valuable favors for the political elite.

Politicians use such villains to avoid angering people as they hand out favors to friends, relatives, wealthy donors, and former staffers.

IP pirates make perfect villains.

Those damn college kids are destroying American jobs. That's why we need to help out Hollywood (with your tax dollars). Or so the argument goes. Of course no reasonably informed person would ever fall for such an obviously flimsy argument (for one thing, harsher IP laws probably cost more jobs than they save at this point). But remember, a politician need only convince enough people to ensure his own reelection.

So, the more pirates (and piracy) we have, the more cover politicians have to give big-content whatever it wants regardless of the impact on the overall economy and society.

So put down the P2P client (unless you're downloading something legally!) and pick up a pen or a sign or a ballot and do something about the problem. You might find that someday you don't need to pirate content because it is available in many formats and at reasonable prices. And maybe people will stop laughing at me!