Defending the Villain

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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I’m not arguing that the ESA, RIAA, MPAA or anyone else is wrong in taking the position of defending themselves from piracy, but it seems like a basic understanding of business would suggest that interfering with legitimate users hurts sales at best and act as a driving force toward piracy at worst. But, it doesn’t even really end there. In flipping through my DirectTV information the other day I was informed that should I choose to record a Pay Per View movie with my DVR, the recording would only be available for twenty-four hours, now establishing restrictions on how I consume media without affording either recourse or discount. This sort of haphazard curtailing of how I may consume media, this further encroachment on the idea that I own the products I buy, is offensive. Companies cannot simply will away the technology that is permeating the average consumers life, but must find ways to adapt else the consumers will adapt those products to fit our lifestyles with or without corporate consent.

Perhaps someone could explain to me why, exactly, I should ever bother to spend money on Pay Per View again if I can’t use the technology I already own to enjoy my purchase at my discretion? Am I crazy in thinking that this measure, like so many others, will drive people to spend less money on these products rather than more? And when that happens, how conveniently will these companies blame piracy on their lagging sales instead of the real culprit: anachronistic and hostile policies toward legitimate consumers.

Let’s be honest: Piracy in the age of digital product is inescapable. It will not cease to exist, and media conglomerates can run from their own shadows all they like, but it’s part of doing business now, a part that has been inflated by their own consistently failed response. And as a consumer, it’s not my problem. It doesn’t change the fact in the least that I expect companies to be able to deliver their content without interruption and without unreasonable restrictions, and if that means they have to sacrifice their tried-and-true models of doing business, again, that’s their problem not mine. I have no doubt that the actual makers of music, movies and games will continue to do so regardless of whether artificial constructs like the RIAA or ESA collapsed tomorrow. These are disposable consolidations of power, and their attitudes in what I increasingly hope are their final days are vaguely reminiscent of dictators about to fall to revolution.

Like most people, I am enthusiastic to give the creative forces behind media their well deserved money, and I am equally enthusiastic to give the responsible support structures behind those media their cut. What I am having increasing trouble justifying is the money that I spend on organizations that increasingly treat me with less respect and more restrictive conditions of sale. Given that, I have the unpleasant choice between piracy and abstaining from consumption, I choose to abstain. The question of piracy remains one that cannot be defended from a legal standpoint, but the truth is that my conviction to see media companies defended is mitigated by my treatment as their customer.

My point is this, and I admit it is flawed: If piracy is the mechanism that dissolves these institutions that have become openly hostile, or forces them to adapt to the modern marketplace, I find it very hard to strongly condemn the practice.

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