Defending the Villain

Sean Sands | 11 Apr 2008 21:00
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

Piracy is a hard topic to discuss reasonably and rationally in a public forum. It is a polarizing issue, revealing deep divides between consumers of all media forms, and an even deeper divide between the public and the industries at large that find themselves under siege. I have been - and remain - fundamentally opposed to piracy, recognizing that the action of consuming media without paying for it is as clearly illegal as any other form of theft. It is an act that many justify by suggesting that it generates product interest or exposes potential consumers to products they might not otherwise buy. It's a fairly hollow argument that builds on the principal that the ends justify the means, and completely avoids the damage done by consumers of pirated material who have no intention of buying what they've already gotten for free, or by the purveyors of pirated material who facilitate the distribution of millions of dollars worth of content every day without a cent going to its creators. So, let me make it clear that I do not endorse piracy.

That said, the behavior of the media industries has become so abhorrent and restrictive that I find it difficult to square the idea that piracy is equal parts illegal and immoral. There was a time not so long ago that I made an ethical choice not to pirate material, but that has shifted over the months and years to a more disconnected position. Now I choose not to participate in piracy because it's just illegal and I can't afford the consequences. That may seem like a simple difference of semantics, but I think that shift from ethical to economic decision-making is neither uncommon nor the sort of thing that media companies should be patting themselves on the back over.

I find it more and more difficult to offer arguments against piracy besides the disproportionate repercussions and threats of litigation that border on a kind of sanctioned extortion. Piracy has become the catch-all excuse for bullying legitimate customers while grousing about dwindling sales. There is, you might reasonably suspect, no other reason that sales of CDs are down except for piracy, despite the abysmal public relations nightmare that industry associations have brought on themselves; despite the increasing interest by consumers in unrestrictive digital music rather than retail products; despite the withering quality of product that the companies produce; despite more and more artists finding that they can distribute their music effectively on their own retaining more of the profits for themselves; and despite the restrictive measures that companies are taking in overzealously protecting their products.

The complaints about the viability of PC gaming are no better. Developers have abandoned the platform after years of releasing games with ridiculous and totally ineffective copy protection, wreaking havoc with performance and stability, wasting countless dollars in the pursuit of the unattainable, and bemoaning when customers reacted negatively to their actions. At the risk of being blunt, no force has been stronger in promoting gaming piracy than the publishers of PC games with invasive copy protection, and the demonstrable success of games that avoid the criminalization of their customers is all the proof you need. It's like walking into a party, throwing a drink in the host's face and then whining about poor hospitality when you're thrown out.

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