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Online Piracy And The Ubiquity Of Digital Copyright Infringement

Photo courtesy of Philippe Put via Flickr

While the pirates of lore sail the seven seas, plundering for treasure, today’s online pirates surf the web to illegally scoop up digital bounty, and distribute all sorts of files P2P (pirate-to-pirate, peer-to-peer).

The net is full of copyrighted media, which can often be caught and shared free of charge. (And in other news, internet language is surprisingly nautical.)

Online piracy is a serious and divisive topic for many. There are three camps: those in support, and those opposed. And of course, the many that remain apathetic, but may reap its benefits nonetheless.

Online Piracy: What is it?

By definition, online piracy is: the practice of illegally copying and selling copyrighted materials such as digital music, video, computer software, etc, from the Internet.

Piracy is a term both used to describe those that do the actual copying and selling of media, and those that illegally download it.

Piracy can come in all forms, but the major ones include:

  • Music piracy: Songs, albums, etc, copied and sold online a la old-school Napster
  • Movie piracy: Movies and other copyrighted visual entertainment
  • Software piracy: The pirating of software like PhotoShop, Adobe, and Microsoft Office

The word piracy works for both those that approve and disapprove of the practice. Opponents equate online pirates with ship-plunderers of the high seas, but proponents romanticize the term to encompass the freedom and glory of the pirate lifestyle, as lived on the web.

The most pirated item on the web is pornography, followed by movies, TV shows, games, software, and music.

Arguments against it

Groups like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), artists, and many others vehemently oppose piracy.

Anti-pirates argue that:

  • Piracy is a threat to art and creativity, and is an illegal copyright infringement to boot
  • It cuts into profits, and therefore reduces artistic incentive to produce more work
  • Even if artists make the money back, the support staff does not

According to RIAA, piracy also results in $12.5 billion in economic loss per year, costs 71,000 jobs in the US each year, and reduces annual workers’ earnings by $2.7 billion.

The toll is “devastating,” the RIAA says, to many players including “songwriters, recording artists, audio engineers, computer technicians, talent scouts and marketing specialists, producers, publishers and countless others.”

Arguments for it

It may seem difficult to imagine logical justification for what is essentially stealing, besides personal convenience.  But even pirates have their reasons.

Pro-pirates argue that:

  • Piracy has a negligible impact on sales, as those that pirate don’t overlap with those that purchase
  • The majority of sales don’t go to the creator, so fans prefer to show support in other ways (concerts, donations)
  • Pirated may actually boost sales by more widely popularizing the product

Many piracy proponants would prefer to think of themselves as anti-anti-piracy, as they are simply distrustful of the organizations and laws attempting to limit their access and ownership.

They argue that media is overpriced, not enough of it goes to the artist, and that copyright law is broken when it comes to digital media.

Many people are actually in this camp:

  • 70 percent of online users find nothing wrong with piracy
  • 95 percent of music downloaded online is illegal
  • 75 percent of computers have at least one illegally-downloaded application

Piracy advocates also cite poor availability, especially overseas, difficulty of purchasing, and Digital Rights Management (DRM) limitations. It may be this reason — simple inconvenience — that China, Columbia, and Russia are the top countries in terms of frequent piracy.

So who is right?

Anti-pirates certainly have the law on their side, in this case: in the U.S., criminal offenses can run up to five years in prison and $250,000. Of course, this type of crime is extremely difficult to trace and even harder to take to trial.

But piracy is not exactly crippling across the board. Hollywood continues to sell more movie tickets than ever; porn, software, and game industries are likewise booming. Big musicians aren’t hurting, although the music industry faces difficulties due not only to piracy, but music streaming and a growing preference for digital music over CDs.

Fighting online piracy is a near impossible task to do effectively without crossing over into the realm of censorship, as critics argued the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)’s would have done, were it passed. Such policies are often met with vehement backlash.

The takeaway

Because the most pirated items are often those that are least available, a natural way to ease piracy could be making movies, shows, games, music, and other media easier and more affordable for people all over the world to access.

Because big media companies make equally big money through cable operators, the existing model may actually be more profitable — piracy aside — than opening it up more to the masses. File-sharing in some cases has positive effects on entertainment industries, which is why you won’t see HBO in a huff over Game of Throne file-sharing.

At the end of the day, online piracy is an overwhelmingly common crime, albeit a soft one, that will probably never be capsized. But that doesn’t mean those that do it shouldn’t wear their eye patches with a little bit of shame.

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Jennifer Markert