Over all the decades that piracy has been a hot topic the point often comes up that piracy isn’t stealing because those pirates would not have paid money if piracy were not an option. This point, while often brought up, is often ignored. There is no response to it, and yet it is perhaps the most central and crucial point in the entire discussion. I think one major problem is that there has been little actual investigation into the truth of this, at least that I have heard of. Allow me to begin that investigation with some common sense logic.
Pretend you are at the movie theatre. There is a movie there that you want to see very badly. You’ve got your money ready to buy a ticket. There are two other movies in the theater. One of them you hate, and you wouldn’t watch it unless under duress. The third movie seems ok, but you don’t actively want to see it.
While you are waiting in the ticket line someone comes up to you and offers free tickets to the third movie. You are now choosing between paying for a movie you really like, or paying nothing for a kind of ok movie. You might go either way, depending on the movies, the cost of the ticket, and other factors. The point is that if the second movie were not free, you would not watch it.
The same goes for digitally pirated music, movies, videogames, etc. Back in college I decided I was going to try to watch all of the top 250 movies on IMDB. I haven’t finished that, but I’ve seen a lot of them. Of course, I saw most of these movies by downloading them. If I had to actually pay for all of them, how many would I have paid for? Probably zero. I was in college, I couldn’t afford to start collecting DVDs.
Take a look at something like World of Goo. Ars TEchnica says it is a crying shame that the piracy rate is near 90%. World of Goo is a very good video game. There is no denying that. But how many people out there really like it a whole lot? How many people have $15 worth of like for it? Apparently the answer is 1/10. Those people who are pirating it might like it, and might have fun, but if piracy were not an option, they simply wouldn’t pay.
There’s this conception that piracy is stealing. And true, it is illegal. But illegal doesn’t mean wrong. Ever hear of no harm no foul? Who is hurt by piracy? If you believe me that the people who pirate would rather not play than pay, then the copyright holders are losing almost nothing to piracy. In fact, they are gaining because when their products are enjoyed by people who would have otherwise ignored them, it is excellent marketing. It creates more fans, and makes sure that the maximum number of people willing to pay money get that opportunity.
Let’s pretend we have perfect replicators. We can create perfect copies of any inorganic object at no cost. First we woudl replicate the replicators until everyone had one. Then everyone would have the best TV, the best car, the best furniture, the nicest house, the best everything.
In such a world, would it not be cruel to deny someone something? How could you deny someone the best food if it cost nothing to create? How could you deny someone the biggest television, or the most luxurious car, if it were free to produce and equally easy to produce as a smaller television or a less luxurious car? If replicators didn’t exist, of course those people wouldn’t have a luxury car. But replicators do exist, so how can you deny them to everyone who wants one? How can you not replicate the Mona Lisa for everyone who wants one in their house?
Just to reiterate the point. Let’s pretend I had infinity apples. Literally infinity apples. Everyone knows I have infinity apples, and they are the best tasting apples in the world. If I try to sell those apples for $5 each, am I not an asshole? I have infinity of them! It wouldn’t hurt me at all to give them to everybody at no charge. What’s better for the world as a whole? Infinite delicious apples for everyone, or $5 for me? Would people even pay the $5 for my apples if they had to? No, because I’m a jerk and nobody will give me money.
We all know what is legal and what is illegal. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about what is right and what is good. In a world without piracy the company that made World of Goo ends up with roughly the same amount of money that they do in the world with piracy. However, in the world of piracy, ten times as many people experience the joy of playing World is Goo. The world without piracy is only different in that there is less joy and more jerks hoarding apples.
You may go on about the consequences of copyright for artists and such and such. And I may even agree with many of those things you say. The reality is that any sort of copyright on anything that can be expressed digitally is absolutely unenforceable. That’s reality. Piracy is here, and it can’t be beaten. There is no way. If you’re against it, you’ve already lost. The only possibility is that you may temporarily reduce the amount of joy in the world for some people who are not technologically inclined.
I really think that digital piracy just needs a makeover. We need to stop thinking about pirates as thieves, and start thinking about anti-piracy folks as apple-hoarding jerks. It will take some marketing, and probably won’t ever happen. The saddest part I think is that so much energy is being spent fighting a battle that is already over. If those resources were spent elsewhere, the world would be a better place twice over.