How Badly Do You Want It?

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.

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7 Responses to How Badly Do You Want It?

  1. Mike Schneider says:

    Scott, do you think piracy should be legalized? Or do you think we should leave it the way it is now, but have the MAFIAA (www.mafiaa.org) stop trying to sue people? I agree with everything you’ve said here 100%, but I don’t quite see what action, if any, you suggest we or our government take to change anything.

  2. Michael says:

    Like most people of my generation, I did the whole piracy thing for awhile, but I’ve done it less and less lately. There are various reasons for this, one being the fact that more companies are allowing me to access the content in the way that I want, and also that I am in a better position to pay for what I want. I have also learned to accept the things that I cannot have in a world of limited resources. Of course there are only artificial limits on digital goods. What this argument ultimately comes down to is whether or not people are creating these things as a means of supporting themselves. If making a game is your only source of income, you want as many people to pay for it as possible. A pirated copy is a sale that you will must likely never have and it can not even really be considered marketing for the fact that most people who pirate usually continue to do so. So what we end up with are people who did something as a labor of love, but who will not be able to do so again. It comes down to how much did your apples cost you. As much as it is romanticized, the word piracy has a negative connotation. Sorry this has been sorta rambling, but I’m really tired and have to get ready for work, plus I was watching Gabe draw the latest comic on ustream. Feel free to pick out all of my weak points and I will hopefully be able to come back with a better argument. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are all that is promised, everything else is up to the individual. Peace and congrats on the job get.

  3. Railith says:

    I think the biggest issue with digital piracy is that people are still struggling to figure out exactly what their content is worth. A 90% piracy rate is a pricing problem and not a business problem.

  4. Sail says:

    Scott, you are the master of the analogy.

  5. Commo says:

    I agree with some of your points, but I won’t go as far as to say that anti-piracy people are wrong. The makers of World of Goo are independents, who made the game with their money and time. If they want to make another game, they need to be compensated for World of Goo before that can happen. A 90% piracy rate is bad, because it means less money for them to use towards their next game. I’m not totally inclined to believe that all of that 90% would not have paid for the game if there was no piracy. If even 20% of them would have considered buying the game if there were no means to get it for free, then I think that is enough of a reason to eliminate the piracy. Especially if it means more funds going to their next game.
    As far as the pirates who would not have paid for it anyway, effectively “freeloaders”, who cares about them? If they didn’t care enough to pay for it, what makes them entitled to consume the product? A videogame or movie is not an apple, it is not going to affect their life in any way. If it would affect their life, well maybe they should consider paying. I’m sure the World of Goo makers don’t give a shit about the freeloaders, they care about the people who may have paid if not given the alternative. Those are the people they are going to need if they want to make another game. Considering that World of Goo was a pretty good game, I think helping the designers gain the fund to make their next game is a more important than allowing a bunch of college kids get their next free fix.

  6. Brian Anson says:

    You talk about “what is right and good.” What is “right and good” is not taking something that doesn’t belong to you. I agree with what Commo is saying. A video game is not essential to life. Its not even essential for happiness. Just because you don’t have the money for it doesn’t mean that its right for you to go and take it. Your argument is about digital distribution, but you could apply your logic to anything. I could walk into Best Buy, see a game there and say, “I don’t have the money to try this game, so I’m just going to take.” Why do you think that one is wrong and not the other? Again, games publishers need to make money if they’re going to stay in business. They don’t have “infinite apples.” There is a limit to their resources, and if those run out then their won’t be any more games. Is it really better for a game to come out, and then there can’t be any more games after that? And they should make money. They should be paid for their work. Answer this question honestly, how would you feel if you had to work and then not get paid for it? I’m guessing that you’re going to have a negative resonse to that, so why would you do it to someone else?

  7. Your analogy of the infinite apples is insipid because it assumes it didn’t cost anything to create those apples in the first place. If I have infinite apples but it cost me $1000 to produce that first apple that I could then copy, am I still a bad person who hates joy and freedom if I charge people for the apples? Remember too, if I have to spend my own money to create these apples, that means I have to also have a regular day job, which means I have less time to create other replicable fruits.

    I remember listening to your podcast episode about buying anime not being an act of charity or some such, where you guys said something about how you won’t buy anime simply to support the people who make it. This is ironic, because what you are essentially saying here is that all acts of content creation should become acts of charity on the part of the creators; I pay money to produce a song or a videogame or whatever, and then I give it away for free because to do otherwise would be to hate joy.

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