Before the Internet, before digital video and digital media, before optical discs, before peer-to-peer file sharing and BitTorrent, there was piracy-infringement of granted legal protections or copyright on works, whether that work be a painting or film. In fact, copyright infringement predates the modern concept of copyrights, established with the 1710 Statute of Anne; in 1703 author Daniel Defoe lamented that his poem, “The True-Born Englishman”, was being reprinted without his permission and he was not seeing the proceeds from those printings by “Pyrates”.
But while the nature of getting something for nothing or duplicating something against the creator’s wishes has not changed in hundreds of years, the methods of doing so have. Decades ago, it took considerable work to copy materials, but with the advent of personal computers and digital media, it only requires a web search and some time. Furthermore, unauthorized sharing used to be fairly limited, to friends giving each other mix tapes, pirates selling their goods on street corners, or the like. Now, the Internet allows anyone with access to download files from literally anywhere around the world. One lost sale of a pirated DVD can turn into hundreds or thousands. One legitimate copy of a game can be uploaded for anyone else to grab free of charge.
Naturally, this has created a massive paradigm shift in all of media. The reaction has been uneven, often conflicting. In many ways, it has polarized people into camps: on one side are artists, recording companies, and media conglomerates who want to protect their property and their profits. On the other are free culture advocates, pirates, mixers and mash up artists, and even some “mainstream” artists who don’t see piracy as a problem. With billions of dollars at stake, it’s not surprising that myths and incorrect preconceptions rule the piracy debate.
No one particularly likes the Recording Industry Association of America, shortened as the RIAA. They represent the music companies who in turn represent firms that represent artists. They are the ones who are known for levying outrageous fees against people who have pirated songs. If offenders don’t settle (at one point, they were directed to make credit card payments via a website), they then take them to court, and have won some pretty significant damages (although many were overturned or reduced later)-$675,000 from a Boston University student is among the smaller amounts (1, 2).
Most everyone would say that stealing is wrong, and under most circumstances, people can agree that downloading songs, movies, or television shows you did not own or pay for is theft, albeit by digital means. Rationalizations aside, it’s fairly unambiguous. So those not in the loop might wonder what all the fuss is about. Aside from some high fees levied by media companies, what’s the big issue?
The problem is that companies like the RIAA are also in favor of limiting technologies that have the capacity to be used for illicit purposes. Take, for example, the Diamond Rio MP3 player. Long before the iPod single-handedly brought MP3 players to the masses, a few pioneering brands were already catering to a small but growing niche. The RIAA already saw the threat of digital music and attempted to kill the Rio player, saying that it violated copyright because it was capable “of distributing pirated copyrighted music” (3). The courts ruled against the RIAA in that case, but it’s not just MP3 players that have faced challenge; DVRs and before them VCRs were also the subject of legal challenge.
This is a stance that puts media companies at distinct odds with consumers. Most of us have an ingrained sense of personal property-if you bought a CD, you can listen to it, rip it to your computer, put it on your MP3 player. Ultimately, however, such a rationale infringes of the ethic of maximizing profit. Movie companies would rather sell you a DVD and a Blu-Ray and a Blu-Ray special edition and a digital copy. To that end, a major aspect of media releases in recent years has been technology designed to control and limit what consumers do with their content, ostensibly to combat piracy (4).
The main result is “digital rights management”, or DRM. DRM takes many forms, but can be found in everything from video games to music downloads. For a long time, music purchased of Apple’s iTunes Store came with DRM that prevented copying the files to more than X number of devices or computers, or burning a number of CDs. While many don’t like DRM, the question of its effacy is hotly-debated. iTunes sold literally billions of DRM-wrapped songs in just a few years-all legal downloads where the labels were paid and so (we assume) were the artists.
On the other hand, DRM’s ability to combat piracy may be less effective than one might expect. For every lock, there is a key, and on the internet, every bit of encryption or limitation is an invitation for a hacker to try and destroy it. Cory Doctorow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation summed it up thusly:
“DRM systems are broken in minutes, sometimes days. Rarely months. It’s not because the people who think them up are stupid. It’s not because the people who break them are smart. It’s not because there’s a flaw in the algorithms. All DRM systems share a common vulnerability: they provide their attackers with the cipher and the key. I don’t need to be a cracker to break your DRM. I only need to know how to search Google or any other search tools for the cleartext someone smarter than me has extracted” (4).
The end result of this inherent vulnerability, many hold, is that only the non-computer literate or tech savvy are affected by the DRM-and these are in fact the people least likely to pirate copyrighted material anyhow. A parallel can be drawn to the assertion that “if guns were outlawed, only outlaws would have guns”. DRM use is declining in some quarters but increasing in some, and is a de facto and accepted aspect of some parts of the media culture: most video games, for example, are “region-locked”, meaning they can only be played in the marketed territories, whether the EU or North America. But as much as DRM might hurt a company-there were calls for a massive boycott of the video game Spore due to its restrictive DRM-not including it also hurts. Publisher Stardock’s game Demigod suffered from high levels of piracy that slowed its multiplayer games. This in turn hurt its reviews, which no doubt turned off prospective buyers (5).
In all likelihood, DRM will continue to persist in some form, as some response to piracy will always be necessary, if not ideal. But is it right to persecute legitimate buyers for personal uses? It is not a great battle to win, as some might have you believe-the Government Accountability Office has been unable to confirm many of the possibly-inflated estimates of damages caused by piracy, and in any case copyright infringement isn’t going anywhere (6). The most successful method is to balance the stick with the carrot. Give consumers what they want-quality media they are free to enjoy in many formats without being double-charged-and piracy will be less attractive. The only other alternative is an appeal to morality, and if the media companies are being immoral, why would consumers act any better?
* (1) Vijayan, Jaikumar (August 7, 2009). “Tenenbaum Says He Faces Bankruptcy after $675K Verdict”. Computerworld. Accessed April 23, 2010.
* (2) Read, Brock (March 16, 2007). “Record Companies to Accused Pirates: Deal or No Deal?” Chronicle of Higher Education. Accessed April 26, 2010.
* (3) Clampet, Elizabeth (June 16, 1999). “Court OKs Diamond Rio MP3 Player”. Internet News. Accessed April 26, 2010.
* (4) “Digital Rights Management–An Exploration”. Geeks.co.uk (April 23, 2010). Accessed April 26, 2010.
* (5) Chalk, Andy (April 16, 2009). “Demigod Piracy Running High”. Escapist Magazine. Accessed April 26, 2010.
* (6) Sandoval, Greg (April 12, 2010). “Feds Raise Questions About Big Media’s Piracy Claims”. CNET. Accessed April 25, 2010.
For related articles about copyrights, piracy, and the like, see “A History of Software Piracy and Video Games” and “Piracy, Fair Use and the Mashup: Entitlement in the Age of Computers”.