Monday, October 27, 2008

Is Piracy Stealing?

This is a question I have wrestled with for a long time. Citizen Economists, a recent add to my blogroll, has a great post in defense of it:

First of all, the word “taken,” as it was originally used, was meant to imply that what you take is no longer there with the owner. In fact, the root of the word piracy itself betrays what it is supposed to mean. Pirates stormed ships forcibly, looted the occupants (not to mention murdered and God knows what else), and took away things that left the original owners without them.

This clearly doesn’t apply to piracy of music CD’s and software. If I download a song from a server, then the original copy is intact and nothing has been lost. To put a different spin on it, if I light a candle, and you (without my consent) light another candle from my flame and run away, can I charge you with having stolen my light? Is that piracy? I don’t think so.

not sure if I agree with this:

The overwhelming majority of people who illegally download software would never have bought it if they were unable to get if for free. So this argument falls flat.

and finally my favorite point:

It is never easy to download something illegally. You have to find a source, try and crack it, are in constant fear that updates will change something and render the software useless, etc. This is the reason why people pay money for software. They do it to avoid hassles. The very fact that people choose to buy software instead of trying to get it for free demonstrates this. The end result is this: People who would never have bought the software anyway are the ones who usually try and download music and software illegally. The others buy it to avoid the hassles of using non-genuine software.

The fact that people are still buying music and paying for software illustrates this principle. They pay for software even though they can get it for free. As long as companies make it as difficult as possible for their software to be copied illegally (it doesn’t have to be impossible), they will not lose sales since those to whom the software is worth the price will purchase it.


  1. I'm not sure if you meant those comments facetiously or not ... but here's my response:

    In point 1, the thing being stolen isn't the music. It is my right (as the creator and owner of the music) to sell copies of it. If you make a copy of it for yourself, there is no damage done to my copy, but you have physically limited my ability to sell you a copy. This is compounded when you make copies for others - you are now limiting my ability to sell copies to all of those people as well. This isn't affected by whether or not you (or they) would have bought a copy otherwise. My ability to sell you a copy is certainly limited by the supply of "free" copies of the music/software/whatever.

    I also disagree with part 2 - and I think I've seen some research about it - but I don't feel like looking for it right now, and I'm not sure I've actually seen it, so I'm just going to say that I think I disagree.

    Point 3 (your favorite) is probably the most ridiculous in my estimation. First and foremost, the initial statement of your quotation is completely ridiculous. It is VERY easy to download software illegally (in most cases with "commercial" software, it is impossible to download it legally without getting some kind of personal arrangement made). Browsing just now on a popular BitTorrent listing site (and looking just at the most popular downloads), here are some pieces of available software: Adobe Photoshop Extended CS3 (cracked), Microsoft Office 2007 Complete (with CD Keys), Adobe CS3 Master Collection Corporate (doesn't need to be validated), Sony Vegas Pro 8.0b. I haven't downloaded and tried any of those, but I'd bet money that every one of them works as advertised. Updates are a virtual non-issue (you either don't bother updating or go download the updated version if something breaks).

    To claim that "the fact that people are still buying music and paying for software illustrates [the] principle" that people who are paying for software are paying to avoid the hassles involved with using non-genuine software is an absurd statement. People also buy their cars instead of stealing them because there's less hassle. And they buy their groceries instead of stealing them because there's less hassle. And they get a University education instead of printing out a fake diploma because there's less hassle. Heck - they shop at Wal-Mart instead of Bloom because there's less hassle. That's what a free market economy is all about. You always take the option that most satisfies your desires with the least hassle.

    The fact that the hassles of stealing software and music are VERY low simply means that people are valuing that cost appropriately (and assuming that the vendors won't care or won't catch them). They're making an informed decision based on the market.

    I think that summarizes my opinions pretty well, but I'm way too lazy to proofread blog-comments, so who knows.


  2. Traci B.7:59 PM

    I enjoyed that response Edward.

    Have lunch with us Sunday Nov. 9th at mom's house!

  3. Great comments Edward. I am not very knowledgeable on this topic so I'm pretty much willing to take your word on it. However, here are my thoughts:

    "the thing being stolen isn't the music"

    Great point. And I definitely think you're right. I guess my answer to the question I posed as the subject of this post is yes, I think piracy is stealing. But I thought the original post over at Citizen Economists gave some decent reasons to decriminalize it.

    "I also disagree with part 2"

    This is of course a really hard number to measure, but I would approximate that at least 75% of downloaded songs would never have been bought. I wonder what the amount of estimated cost this had on the music industry (I'm sure there are numbers out there). I can only speak for myself, but back in high school (I don't do it anymore) I would probably never have bought any of the hundreds of songs I downloaded.

    "It is VERY easy to download software illegally"

    I don't doubt that is true for you Edward, someone who's full time job is working with computers, but I wouldn't really know where to start downloading software illegally.

    And since the close of Napster isn't it hard for a layman to download music, or am I so clearly out of the piracy world?

    "that people who are paying for software are paying to avoid the hassles involved with using non-genuine software is an absurd statement."

    Well there are always people who abstain for moral reasons, but I would suggest that most people don't download illegally because the price is above 0 (including opportunity cost).

  4. I don't question that you don't know where to start with downloading software (or music) illegally. I could, however, list 3 websites here that are "torrent trackers" - sites that keep lists of the files that are being distributed using the BitTorrent protocol ... searching through those for TV Shows, Software, Music, etc. is trivially easy (just as straightforward as finding shows on Hulu or videos on YouTube). Each landing page has instructions for getting a BitTorrent client (and links to several, if I remember correctly). Once you've installed that, it's just like downloading anything else from the Internet. The days of burning a CD from a .ISO file and then running a crack on it after you install it and then ... ... ... are pretty much over.

    Downloading music isn't as "easy" as it was in the Napster days - those first 2 years or so, most Napster users were on a local network (inside Clemson for example), and the industry hadn't started seeding the networks with bad music (songs that are "real" for 10 seconds and then turn into an advertisement against piracy, and the like). Getting programs like Napster (there are still several dozen out there) is as simple as knowing their names and downloading them ... getting music afterwards is the same as it was with Napster, if somewhat slower and less consistently high-quality.

    My only issue with your final statement is that you are treating "moral reasons" as being outside of the "market" - those moral reasons are just a high (possibly can be treated as infinite) cost to doing something that the do-er considers immoral.

    Obviously the people who don't download have concluded that the cost to download (time, potential criminal retribution, potential eternal retribution, etc.) is higher than the cost of the "item" (for those who buy the item) or is higher than the value of the item (for those who neither download nor buy).

    The issue is if you make "pirating" legal, you eliminate virtually all of the costs to obtaining the item. You no longer have to be concerned with criminal or eternal retribution (since you're no longer participating in an illegal act). Eliminating those two costs would bring significantly more people into the "in-crowd" of downloaders which would decrease the time required (both by spreading out the uploading/downloading across many more people and by increasing the quality of the software/networks due to the larger audience) to download things.

    Where is the motivation to create if the avenue for recompense is nonexistent?

  5. "The issue is if you make "pirating" legal, you eliminate virtually all of the costs to obtaining the item"

    Yeah I think you're right, but is that a bad thing. I guess my quesetion is, how much production would we lose if that happened. Or what if we gave creators like a month of exclusive ownership or something.

  6. Jumping back on this 11 days later ...

    Would you write a book if you only got to sell it for 30 days before anybody else who could publish it cheaper was allowed to publish it?

    Why would anybody EVER buy anything in the first 30 days when they knew that it would be available for significantly less money 30 days later. 30 years (or 300 or whatever copyright works out to now) is sufficient incentive to go ahead and pay now. 30 days is not. 1 year is not. 10 years might be. I'm not against copyright reform (and I definitely think it should be reformed in the opposite direction from what it is now) ... but it is definitely the case that without the exclusive right to copy their works, there is virtually no incentive to create those works.

  7. Yeah I just wonder what the optimum time would be and I think it is too long right now.


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.