Media Piracy Cannot Be Rationalized

Is pirating a pirate movie really pirating?

Is pirating a pirate movie really pirating?

Every kid wants to be a pirate at some point. While sailing tall ships around the Caribbean on a quest for buried treasure remains an elusive fantasy, modern pirates take a less romantic form.

Based on reaction to a recent piece by PJ Media’s Susan L.M. Goldberg, it seems many of you – our dear readers — sail the digital seas looting movies, television, and music. To many, the suggestion by Goldberg that such activity might have economic consequences proved deeply offensive. One of the top-rated comments reads:

Quoting the RIAA [Record Industry Association of America] about piracy is like quoting the Mexican Cartel on the dangers of drug legalization. The dubious study RIAA cites assumes that all piracy are lost sales, for which there is simply no evidence.

And there is a lot to the concept that pirated copies lead to sales of legitimate copies and related merchandize. Certainly, there are studies that show that free downloads and DRM free products lead to more sales such as this one.

But mostly I don’t think you understand fully understand the tradeoffs, excessive zeal to stop piracy can annoy one’s legitimate customers.

Considering such arguments reminded me of a guy I know who spent years amassing piles of pirated DVDs by making copies of discs rented from Netflix. We’ll call him “Guy” for the sake of discussion. He obtained the requisite software with ease, available free on the internet, and set off to build a library of titles he wanted to watch but didn’t want to pay for.

Guy knew that what he was doing was illegal, briefly deterred as he was by those menacing FBI warnings displayed before each feature presentation. He felt pangs of conscience, but consoled himself with a number of convenient rationalizations.


“I’m paying to rent the movies,” Guy told himself. “What does it matter if I watch them right when I get them, or make a copy and watch it later?” After all, Netflix allows subscribers to hold onto discs for as long as they want. Wasn’t this just a different mode of holding on?

“I’m paying for the blank discs which I copy movies onto,” Guy told himself. “Aren’t those discs mine regardless of what’s on them?” It wasn’t as though he was taking the discs from Netflix. They still had their copy. Everyone’s happy, right?

“The studios still get their money. Netflix has to buy their discs. My subscription fee goes toward that. It’s all on the level,” he kept telling himself.

Eventually, Guy graduated to streaming from pirate websites and downloading from peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. The quasi-logical rationalizations applied there as well. “It’s my computer. I own what’s on it. It’s like borrowing a movie from a friend.”

All along the way, one master excuse reigned supreme. “It’s not as though I’d buy any of this crap otherwise. So who am I hurting?” That’s the notion which Goldberg challenges in her piece, and which so many of our readers echo. In fact, some tell us piracy actually helps the economy by promoting legitimate sales.

Debate on that question proves quite beside the point which eventually convinced Guy to turn from his pirating ways. Regardless of whether making illegal copies of commercial media causes economic consequence, it violates the rights of creative professionals.

By subscribing to Netflix, Guy entered into a contract with terms of service. Nowhere in that contract is permission granted to copy the discs which Netflix rents. Such permission could not even be granted, because Netflix does not have the right to grant it. They have their own contracts with the studios who produce their library of discs. Every transaction takes place under an agreement, and copying media violates that agreement.

Guy would convince himself that he was actually paying for what he got, rationalizing that paying for the Netflix service and paying for the blank discs and paying for the computer all added up to paying for the finished product. But that’s like telling yourself that the price of a towel is built into your hotel room as you covertly stuff the cloth into your suitcase. In order for trade to be legitimate, it must be fully disclosed and consensual. By concealing your action, you acknowledge that consent has not been given and an objection would be raised if the truth were known. Taking more than you paid for, more than the other party agreed to trade, constitutes theft – plain and simple.

That said, what of Goldberg’s point about economic consequence? Let’s take for granted that you would never pay for anything you pirate. Can it really be said that you’ve therefore deprived the artist of nothing? Not really. While you may not have been willing to pay the asking price for any given media, when you pirate, you concede that the thing you have taken has value. Otherwise, you would not bother to take it. Taking something of value from someone who owns it is called — say it with me now — theft.

There’s another economic angle to piracy worth considering. What happens in the market when a seller prices something above its value? Absent the distortion which theft creates, prices fall. If you’re not willing to pay the asking price for any given media, and no one else is either, the price for that media will fall. By stealing, pirates keep prices artificially high for those who trade legitimately. So regardless of whether your pirating of television and movies hurts Hollywood, it unquestionably hurts your honest neighbor.

Confronted with these moral truths, Guy eventually gave up media piracy.

The comparison of the RIAA to a drug cartel fails. A drug cartel knows what it is selling, as its customers know what they are buying. Prohibition prevents consensual trade. Conversely, intellectual property laws ensure consensual trade and protect ownership rights. So if you think drugs should be legal, you should support intellectual property laws for the same reason. Trade should be consensual.

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