Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Piracy and Society

By now we've all read, heard, seen or otherwise assimilated some knowledge on piracy. It is unavoidable, we hear about it all the time, from the battles the band Metallica had with Napster creator Shawn Fanning to the efforts many companies have taken to reduce/eliminate piracy. From WPA (Windows Product Activation) to DRM (Digital Rights Management). We've all had time time to form our own opinions on the issue. I certainly have.

First, a little history lesson. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, Napster wasn't the origin of piracy. It was, however, responsible for popularizing it, and garnering the attention it ultimately ended up getting. Before Napster, piracy was generally accomplished on a one-on-one basis; I ask you in, a chat room, for “x” song, you give it to me. Because it took more effort to do it that way, people didn't pay much attention. Until Napster, that is. The internet encyclopedia Wikipedia says: “Shawn Fanning first released the original Napster in the fall of 1999. Fanning wanted an easier method of finding music than by searching IRC or Lycos.”1

The band Metallica was busy recording at that time, and a demo cut of their song “I Disappear” was leaked to someone using the Napster network. This ultimately led to it being played on radio stations without having been finished. They, and several other artists and labels filed suit and ultimately Napster was taken offline, but was soon sold to German media firm Bertelsmann for $8 million.

By then of course, the damage had been done. People liked what they saw, a convenient way to get the songs/videos/files they wanted without having to pay for them. Another big push was that you could get the song you wanted, and not the “B-track” songs. If you wanted a song or a movie, you hopped on one of Napsters many followers, like WinMX, Limewire, KaZaA, Morpheus, E-Mule (and its less-sterile cousin), E-Donkey, Grokster, BearShare, DCPlusPlus, Soulseek, Napshare, etc... It was perfect. And illegal. The list goes on and on. As one was shut down, another was ready to fill the void.

Meanwhile, another, more potentially threatening form of piracy was going on. Software piracy has been troubling software developers for a long time, but the growing popularity of P2P programs pushed it to new levels. Now you could not only download music or movies, but full executable programs.

Microsoft has claimed losses in the billions of dollars range to date due to piracy of their Operating Systems, office applications and other software. They have filed suits in Malaysia and China, and made scarcely veiled threats in Somalia. Eastern European websites often advertise “OEM-Only software, sans activation code” going for less then one-third the normal price. Such is invariably pirated, and generally these sites stay up for a short time before being taken down and reopened under a new name. Unfortunately, the majority of nations that this mass-production piracy originate from have very few regulations regarding this type of theft.

Other programs are also subject to piracy, in October of 2004, DOPIP reported that pirated software that was caught netted 25,064,295 counterfeit items, valued then at $79,775,852 USD. This equals out to the pirates charging roughly three dollars and twenty cents per pirated item.

Small-time piracy, done by end-users, is generally of less cause for concern, as it poses much less of a monetary threat to companies. It has, however, recently been targeted by a group of companies partnered together, forming the Trusted Computing Group (TCG).

TCG denies the connection between them and DRM (Digital Rights Management), but it is there nonetheless. In his article “The Digital Imprimatur”, John Walker says “On a Trusted Computing system, the ability to back up, mirror, and transfer data will be necessarily limited. Hardware and compliant operating systems will restrict the ability to transfer data from system to system.”2 This means that there is a hardware lock against piracy built into the computer. Unfortunately, it also means that media you create, or any form of license-free item, will not work on a system meeting the TCG standards. It takes away your right to choose what to do with your system.

However much that is, it pales in comparison to movie piracy. The MPAA claims losses upwards of three billion dollars annually. That number however, doesn't take into consideration internet piracy, as it is more difficult to track. The MPAA has launched in the tens of thousands of investigations into movie pirates, and many raids on suspected pirates. Ironically, some of their investigations turned out sources of leaked films within the motion picture industry itself. I find a fair amount of poetic justice in that. It just drips of the shark analogy, even more so then long-standing lawyer jokes. Movies generally aren't pirated the same way online that music is. They are generally shared via bit-torrent programs, which is also unfortunate, as bit-torrent has very real and legitimate uses as a way of sharing large documents in a network environment.

Theft is wrong, there is no way around that. Piracy of intellectual property is theft. It should be stopped, but the ways that are more commonly considered are just plain bad. Software to prevent it can be cracked. A program is only as good as the coding that went into it. Hardware locks can be overwritten, much the same way that AMD and Intel can disable part of the cache in their processors. You can really only catch the sloppy ones, and that means the average Joe, not the commercial pirates, does the time.

The problem, that I see, is that outrageous prices can be charged (even encouraged). Artists want the biggest possible audience for their music. Movie studios want the high box-office counts to justify making the next big-budget sequel. Programmers want more people to use their software. The common element that these three should follow is pricing. Lower the prices to something more reasonable, and more people will buy your albums, see your movies and buy your software. The free-market status quo no longer works, it has gotten out of hand.

This is not to say that pirates are justified in stealing because the prices are too high, but I have a lot more sympathy for the student in Argentina who pirates his software to do his school work then I do for the kids with entire hard drives full of stolen movies and music. And certainly I have no sympathy whatsoever for the people selling pirated music/movies/software. Selling stolen goods is selling stolen goods. These are the people most in need of prosecution. Yet they are the least likely to be prosecuted.

But then, why do people pirate? Because they can? Because they can't afford to buy the software? I would say to both of those, a resounding yes. BUT, and this is a big one, generally speaking, the majority of people who do pirate a piece of software wouldn't have bought it in the first place. This means that the company loses no money on the individual piracy of that product. It is when pirated programs are distributed that companies lose money. This is something that many people lose sight of.

People naturally want to take the easy way out in life. Why pay $100 for a program you will only use once for a class? Why pay $15 for a CD when you can just as easily download it? Why pay $20 for a DVD when you can download a DVD-rip from one of the many P2P programs or Bit-Torrent sites? Because we can. Humans are a lazy creature, and we'd rather get our media for free then pay for it. This is undeniable, one could throw a random high percentage into the sentence “At some point in their life [insert random high percentage here] of people will pirate a piece of media.” And one generally wouldn't be too far off. The fact is, even if you don't know it, chances are, you have pirated some form of intellectual property. How many of the pictures you have on your computer (including in your internet browsers cache) are images you yourself made? If there is a single one, you might as well pop on the eye-patch and start saying “Arr matey.”

Granted that is a bit of an embellishment, but at the rate some of the anti-piracy lobbyists are pushing, it isn't too far from reality.

I would like to end this with a “Mark my words.” type statement: The day will come when pirates are no longer remembered for raping and pillaging. That is not far-fetched.
Nor is it far-off.

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napster
2 John Walker, The Digital Imprimatur: http://www.fourmilab.ch/documents/digital-imprimatur/

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