What is “Piracy” with Regard to Technology–and why should you care?

This is a subject that is difficult to get information on that isn’t heavily biased in one direction or the other. I’m going to do my best to present baseline facts and leave it to you to form your own opinion, but I will also try to present the viewpoints of both sides.

When we use the word “piracy” with regard to technology, we generally mean getting product or content, which is for sale, without paying for it, but doing so without the consent of the content or product producer. When someone offers “five song downloads with the purchase of” something else, that is NOT piracy. Piracy would be taking your music collection and putting it up on a website and letting other people download copies of the songs. It could be movies, too; or books; or software. The underlying concept is that the content producer is not paid for his product as he expects to be. He offers his content for sale through whatever channels he deems appropriate.

The formal term for piracy is copyright infringement. The understanding of a content producer is that he owns the content he produces and it is his to distribute as he sees fit. He sets a price and determines the distribution channel. The basis of copyright is that nobody else has the right to distribute that material—WITH OR WITHOUT A PRICE.

There have been many websites, and still are, though not to the same extent, that existed for the purpose of file-sharing. It is important to note here that NOT ALL FILE-SHARING OR PEER-TO-PEER ACTIVITY IS PIRACY OR COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT. Many large files are distributed through peer-to-peer protocols; it is a common method for downloading Linux distributions, the licenses of which encourage sharing and distribution. However, it can be argued that the most widespread use of file-sharing is downloading un-paid-for commercial content.

There are many ways to discover music without committing to a large cash outlay for a CD you may discover you hate. Some bands offer their music for sale on their website. MakeUseOf.com has a Sunday download selection, but, of course, it won’t be the high-dollar, big-label names you’re used to hearing on the radio. Amaze.fm showcases artists you’ve never heard of—I’ve discovered some really great music there. The rise of online music stores has eliminated the need to shell out $15 for a bunch of songs when you want one or two from the collection. There really isn’t any excuse anymore for pirating music.

Movies are often being illegally downloaded even before their release to theaters. Since movies are strictly for entertainment, I see no legitimate reason for doing so. There are numerous streaming and disk rental services at very little cost. You may have to wait for them, but for heaven’s sake, if you can’t wait, pay the price to see it in the movie house.

Books have entered the realm of digital media as well, and they too can be pirated. Once again, there is enough freely available no-cost and low-cost content that I cannot imagine a genuine reason someone should not be paid for the content he produces.

Some of the litigators on behalf of content producers—or more specifically, the RIAA—have been extremely heavy-handed and slightly underhanded in how they pursue restitution for infringement. And this is where we get into the “why should you care” part. First, you want paid for work you do. I want paid for work I do. If I write a book that I want to sell, I count on having readers who want to buy the book. If someone takes my content and offers it to others, those people won’t buy my book. It’s always possible that they wouldn’t buy it anyway, but certainly if it’s offered to them by a third party at no cost, they definitely won’t. So it can be hard to determine the exact amount of “damages” incurred by someone whose material has been pirated. Not all the distributions would be to people who would otherwise have purchased the material. Some would be, certainly, but we all know that there are people who only want what’s free.

Put yourself in the shoes of a writer, or a musician, or a movie producer; you have gone to effort and expense to produce a work that you intend to offer for a price. There is nothing wrong with selling your content! It belongs to you, you produced it, you get to set the price. Now you get to look at the distribution of your product and realize that not all of that distribution has generated the expected level of revenue. You would feel angry, and dismayed, and discouraged, and you would have every right to feel all of those things.

One of the places where this discussion tends to go off on different paths is in regard to computer software. There is one very large software company whose prices seem to be much higher than people are willing to pay. They were also very likely the biggest victims of piracy ever. The most recent operating system they offered which was susceptible to piracy was also the most widely used system in the world, largely due to its having been pirated so much. Regardless of whether or not you like that company or its system, the software does in fact belong to them. They license it out under a commercial for-use license. You agree, when you install it, that they still own it, and that you have only a license to USE it, not to modify the code, not to redistribute it. If you choose to transfer that license, you will need to remove it from your use. If you have any questions, read the license. Yes, it’s boring. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it can be done.

There is an element of society that feels that no software ought to be commercially distributed. They foster the idea of Open Source Software, where the source code, which is the code that the programmer actually types, is “open,” or “free,” you can take that code and use it, you can change it, you can do a lot of stuff with it. This software is also licensed, but it is often available at no charge. Again, you don’t own the software, you own a license to use it, under the guidelines of that license. There are different Open Source Licenses, but most of them agree generally on this point: if you make any changes to the code, you have to make those changes available under that same type of license. You can sell the product, but the code has to be available.

A discussion on piracy must also include works in the public domain, and fair use. Works whose copyright has expired are said to be in the public domain. Some very old texts were never copyrighted at all, and many others of later origin were also not copyrighted. Some writers put their fresh works into the public domain so as to make them freely available without threat of retribution. Fair Use is the premise that you are allowed to quote a work, with proper attribution, in your own work, without incurring a charge to the content originator. You are allowed to reference another person’s work. You are allowed to play a snippet—A SNIPPET, NOT THE WHOLE PIECE—of a work, in a work of your own, if doing so is illustrative in nature and in no way devalues the original product.

The rest of the “why you should care” comes in when things get out of hand. Many website owners have found themselves victims of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) without actually having done anything wrong. The DMCA allows accusers to demand a takedown of a website without producing evidence of wrongdoing. Our Constitution here in the States provides for the burden of proof to be on the accuser, and that all law enforcement activities be carried out with regard to due process of law, and most DMCA takedowns ignore that little inconvenience. A website owner often finds himself with no website, no means of discerning why, and little, if any, recourse. I think I’ve been pretty clear that I have no sympathy for genuine pirates, and I can understand the need for action. But we are a country that was designed to be governed by laws established by representatives of the people, and when due process is not necessary for enforcement of THIS law, we need to ask ourselves what slippery slope we may have stepped onto.

Content producers will almost always allow you to use their material as long as you give them credit for it—within reason, of course. You just need to ask. But if they say no, then the answer is no. But apply the Golden Rule to anything you download or copy or otherwise try to obtain without paying for it. If you know what the right thing is to do, then do it.

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