Middle-Class Piracy: an Overview

I’m always interested in the various industries and how they handle piracy concerns (as well as how they BS the U.S. to prove that domestic piracy is more than a minor problem). And seeing as… uh… a friend of mine is a filthy, disgusting pirate, I figure I’ll tell their side of the story.

This will be the first article series for Filler, and hopefully not the last as I consider my writing skills and incredible grasp of human stupidity both to be very important to share with the world.

What is middle-class piracy?

Simply put, it’s a concept I didn’t really make up, but I haven’t seen a good name for it. Piracy takes many forms:

  • Kids who pirate things they can’t buy for themselves. Think of napster and the young teenagers there whose piracy (though not right) didn’t affect the industry, because they weren’t able to buy the music anyway.
  • People in poverty who feel they deserve entertainment regardless of their financial situation. Their plight is one I can sympathize with, having struggled financially most of my life. This doesn’t make it right, but their thefts would never have converted into sales.
  • People pirating things they would never buy anyway. Again, this doesn’t make it right to pirate, but it is a different situation than piracy that actually results in lost revenue. This is usually people who are curious about something (say a really bad movie) but if they couldn’t get it free, they wouldn’t bother to pay for the product.
  • People who are pissed off at some industry or another – they often like what they pirate, and would be legitimate customers if they were unable to get their stuff freely. This would include people who stopped supporting Metallica after the napster ordeal – they would have paid if they had to, but they did what they could to avoid it because they were angry.
  • In software, people who want to try before they buy. These users often pirate a lot of stuff because they feel the industry has burned them too many times, but if they find something the actually like, they buy it. Their piracy sometimes results in lost sales (say a game that’s a lot of fun but short-lived), but sometimes results in gains that may not have happened (“Yeah, like being unexpectedly surprised at how fun Postal 2 really was,” so says my friend, the pirate).
  • People who are just plain lazy. These people would buy the stuff they like, but prefer piracy because it’s instant – no stores, no lines, no CDs, etc. When a legal alternative is a better option, they choose it because they just want whatever is the least hassle. These are the people who like Netflix movies on demand, hulu.com, Steam, and Stardock Central (soon to be Impulse).
  • People who are just plain assholes. These people would also buy the stuff they liked if they had no other choice, but will go out of their way to pirate because they feel they’re owed something for nothing. These guys suck. Even my friend, the pirate, says they’re assholes.

Middle-class pirates can be in any group above except the first two, but are more common found in the “lazy” group. They don’t necessarily feel like piracy is the right thing to do, and they may not even rationalize the piracy – they may flat out tell you what they’re doing is wrong or that they do feel “kinda” bad about it. They just pirate because they hate dealing with the shit that goes along with buying legitimately (DRM on movies and music, broken copy protections on their software, CDs and DVDs, etc). When a legal alternative presents similar conveniences as piracy, they’ll often choose the legal avenue, because they like to support quality products (even if they are sick of the fact that most of their money is never seen by “the little guy”).

Why middle-class piracy?

I address these pirates for two reasons:

  • First, I know many of them, at least on the internet (yeah, I know, I don’t have real friends).
  • Second, they’re the easiest group in the world to stop, because they’re lazy first, pirates second.

By definition, middle-class pirates aren’t poor, so buying isn’t a non-option for these people. They just have to see value in making a purchase. Which, sadly, is more and more rare in the digital age.

Piracy costs companies millions and billions and trillions of … nothing?

How piracy is reported as a loss I will never fully understand.

Different reports place losses in the billions for various industries, yet box office takes are still record-breaking when the movie isn’t trite Hollywood crap. Bands may not be making a killing, but the labels are clearly doing very well. Software sales for the big games (those the most easily pirated, by the way) are insane.

The claim that piracy is destroying any of these industries just has no real evidence to back it. I’ve seen quoted figures, legitimate-to-pirate ratios, graphs showing the decline over time as piracy has “destroyed” one industry or another. None of this data is real.

The data cannot be real!

My friend, the pirate, has pirated many things in his life, but rarely does he pirate something he likes without ending up buying it. He says that software in particular is this way. He downloads games and plays them a few days. If he likes them, he pays (easier to keep the game up to date that way, or get support, or mods, or whatever – again, laziness on his part if you ask me). If not, they’re deleted from his computer. He admits that he sometimes keeps something around that he “sorta” likes, but if he lost it and found that he couldn’t pirate it again, he wouldn’t pay for it, either.

He’s also downloaded movies or music in situations where he once bought it and broke the CD/DVD, or rented the movie and never had the time to watch it. Is that morally right? Tough issue I won’t get into (it’s absolutely illegal, but “right” vs. “wrong” is not so black and white), but it’s not a loss of revenue given that he already paid for the product. In the case of a CD, it’s legal at the moment to make a backup, and DVDs are iffy territory, but in many countries even those are legal for personal backups. So had he made a backup or not broken the product, he’d never have needed to replace it – i.e., he still seemingly should own the right to view or listen to said product. The rented movie issue is trickier, but I tend to agree that he paid for the right to view the movie and if he’s really and truly viewing it once and deleting it, he’s not costing anybody anything.

The point? Measuring piracy is impossible. There is no way to know what the pirate is doing with the product. If he downloads it to replace something he already paid for, I just can’t call that a loss. If he downloads it and ends up buying it later, that’s definitely not a loss. If he downloads something on a whim that he doesn’t care about and never would have bought in the first place, that’s not a loss. Yes, he should pay for it if he likes it, but it’s technically not lost revenue.

Stay tuned!

Next time, I’ll talk about the current situation in the software industry, which I believe has some of the best (and worst) practices with regards to stopping piracy without alienating legitimate users. Pay special attention to Stardock’s approach, as they have about the only real proof of what piracy costs a smaller game company.

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