The main accusation against Internet piracy is that it makes the authors/companies lose money, because the “pirates” illegally download their products, instead of buying them. The reality, however, points to the contrary. A 2009 and a 2013 study showed that illegal music downloaders are more likely to buy music than other people (1, 2). Music legend Neil Young argues that “Piracy is the new radio. That’s how music gets around. […] That’s the radio. If you really want to hear it, let’s make it available, let them hear it, let them hear the 95 percent of it.” (3) Neil Gaiman, famous author of The Sandman, Coraline, American Gods, and Stardust, among others, said in an interview (4) that sales for all of his books went up 300% when his publisher agreed to make American Gods available for free download. In his own words, “… you’re not losing books, you’re not losing sales, by having stuff out there. … What you’re actually doing is advertising, you’re reaching more people, you’re raising awareness. … The biggest thing the web is doing is allowing people to hear things, allowing people to read things, allowing people to see things that they would have never otherwise seen.” Mikael Hed, the chief executive of Rovio, the company behind the Angry Birds game, stated that “Piracy may not be a bad thing: it can get us more business at the end of the day.” (5) Reportedly, he said that “he sees any type of piracy as being helpful to the brand in attracting new fans.” (5)
The second season finale of the HBO show Game of Thrones was illegally downloaded in 2012, 4.3 million times, reportedly (6). In theory, the DVD sales (for the second season, at least) should have gone down. Instead, they went up. Way up. The first day of release “moved 241,000 units, which is 44 percent higher than the first season’s initial sales and represent the biggest first-day numbers ever for an HBO home video release.” (7) What does HBO programming president Michael Lombardo think about their show being illegally downloaded so many times? “I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it is a compliment of sorts.” (8) He adds, “The demand is there. And it certainly didn’t negatively impact the DVD sales. [Piracy is] something that comes along with having a wildly successful show on a subscription network.” (8) Lombardo’s opinion is shared by Game of Thrones author, George R.R. Martin (9) and director, David Petrarca (10). The latter reportedly argued that “illegal downloads did not matter because such shows thrived on “cultural buzz” and capitalised on the social commentary they generated.” (10)
Whatever the reason why the pirates are also buying what they download for free might be (perhaps guilt, or perhaps they like the product so much that they want to support the author, or maybe they simply want a better copy of the product), the facts show that piracy is far from harming the actual sales. On the contrary, it shows to be beneficial, however surprising and unlikely that may sound.
But what about the ethics, the morals? Is it okay to “steal”?
First of all, let’s analyze the word “to steal.” The general definition of it is “to take the property of another wrongfully” (11), but its meaning goes also toward the notion of damage. When you steal someone’s property, you damage that person’s assets, by reducing them. In other words, you’re making that person poorer. But, as showed in the previous paragraphs, internet piracy doesn’t seem to affect anybody’s wealth or earnings. It’s not that the companies/authors are losing money, but that they’re not gaining more than they already are. However, they are gaining popularity, which proves to be good for business.
Second, I think it’s a question of whether the end justifies the means. I would say it depends on the end. If the end goal was profit, and one would sell what one illegally downloads, then this could be considered a crime. But if one’s goal was knowledge, using the only means that are available – illegal downloading – to educate oneself, then we cannot just condemn that person solely because s/he has done something illegal.
Piracy as means of education?
It is a general belief that pirates are contemptible, lazy, or anarchistic persons who don’t want to pay for the things they download, and have no regard for the law. But that’s like saying the kids who steal a piece of bread are contemptible and lazy because they’re hungry and don’t have the money to pay for the bread. I’m not saying that all thieves are poor, and thus their actions are somewhat justified. I’m just saying that most of them are. That is the reality. It’s the same thing with pirates. Some really are lazy, or egotistical, or anarchists, who just don’t want to pay for their products. But some of them simply cannot afford to pay for what they’re downloading.
I would argue even that in a way, online piracy democratizes information. If piracy wouldn’t exist, there would be a huge informational/ technological/ knowledge gap between the developed countries and the less developed ones. The only way a young person from a poor country, who can barely afford an internet connection, can get access to books, and computer programs that he or she might need to read/ learn in order to get a better job, or to complete his/her education, is through the torrent sites. MOOCs, such as the ones offered by Coursera, or edX, can only get you so far. You need to actually read the books that are recommended, and many of them are still under copyright laws. Also, not all the websites that sell those books ship to those respective countries.
Internet piracy is a reflection of existing social problems, as well as of bad marketing strategies and old mentalities regarding selling certain products. Until at least some of these problems are solved, online piracy is here to stay, and we just cannot look at it in terms of black and white, legal/illegal.
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(1) Michaels, Sean, “Study finds pirates 10 times more likely to buy music,” The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/apr/21/study-finds-pirates-buy-more-music
(2) Isaacson, Betsy, “Music Pirates Buy 30 Percent More Songs Than Non-Filesharers: Study,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/22/music-pirates-study_n_2526417.html
(3) Richmond, Shane, ‘Piracy is the new radio’, says Neil Young, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/9054002/Piracy-is-the-new-radio-says-Neil-Young.html
(4) Gaiman on Copyright Piracy and the Web, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Qkyt1wXNlI
(5) “Angry Birds chief: piracy is good for business,” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/9049423/Angry-Birds-chief-piracy-is-good-for-business.html
(6) Hibberd, James, “Most pirated TV shows 2012: ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Dexter’ tops,” Entertainment Weekly, http://insidetv.ew.com/2012/12/27/most-pirated-tv-shows-2012/
(7) Hibberd, James, “‘Game of Thrones’ early DVD sales breaking HBO records,” Entertainment Weekly, http://insidetv.ew.com/2013/02/22/game-of-thrones-dvd-sales-breaking-hbo-records/
(8) Hibberd, James, “HBO: ‘Game of Thrones’ piracy is a compliment,” Entertainment Weekly, http://insidetv.ew.com/2013/03/31/hbo-thrones-piracy/
(9) Bishop, Bryan, “‘Game of Thrones’ author George R.R. Martin on piracy, video games, and new shows with HBO,” The Verge, http://www.theverge.com/2013/3/21/4131644/game-of-thrones-author-george-r-r-martin-on-piracy-video-games-new-shows-hbo
(10) “Downloads don’t matter,” The Sydney Morning Herald, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/downloads-dont-matter-20130226-2f36r.html