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Saturday, 17 March 2012

Is Piracy Just a Form of Petty Theft?

English: Flag of pirate Edward England Polski:...
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Honest Questions From a Simple Man.

This discussion follows on from last week's debate about honesty. Here's the link, if you want to visit that first: http://stuartaken.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/is-copying-same-as-theft.html .

Theo: We'd reached the conclusion that you'd be prepared to pay what you saw as a reasonable amount for things like CDs, DVDs and books. But that it was acceptable to steal these objects if they were overpriced.

Dave: I wouldn't put it like that.

Theo: How would you put it?

Dave: Look, if you feel you're being ripped off, especially by a big organisation, you want to get your own back. It's natural, isn't it?

Theo: So, what you're saying is that theft of small items from large organisations that overcharge for the goods is a legitimate activity?

Dave: Except I wouldn't call it theft.

Theo: So, we're looking at semantics here, are we?

Dave: No. That's just playing with words.

Theo: Well, I'm trying to understand. Tell me what you'd call it, then we can move on.

Dave: It's redistribution, isn't it? Like Robin Hood. He stole from the rich and gave it to the poor.

Theo: It's interesting that you still use the term 'stole' here but seem reluctant to use the same word for what we're discussing.

Dave: Yeah, well he redistributed wealth by taking things from the rich and giving them to the poor.

Theo: And these things he took were essential to the welfare of those he gave them to?

Dave: It was money mostly, and jewellery they could sell. Hell, these people were starving and the fat cats were taking more and more in taxes from them, so they could live in luxury.

Theo: So, this mythical act of redistribution was to do with inequality in society, where the differential in wealth was so great that those on the bottom were starving and those at the top were living lives of excess?

Dave: That's right. Social engineering, they call it.

Theo: Okay. I can see the justice and fairness in such a scheme. When authority won't do a job for society, society needs to do the job itself. And that seems perfectly fine when we're talking of the necessities of life. It starts to seem like envy, however, if we apply the same rule to things that aren't essential. We all need food, heat, shelter, etc., to live a reasonable life. But we don't actually 'need' the items we've been discussing. These things are extras; 'wants' rather than 'needs'. Would you agree?

Dave: If you put it like that…

Theo: Your argument is based on price, which you see as unfair. If we extend it logically, you could use the same argument to justify stealing someone's Lamborghini, because it's an expensive car as opposed you your own hatchback. Would you steal a car for that reason?

Dave: Of course not.

Theo: So, we come back to where you set the level for what you see as acceptable taking without paying. And I think we've already covered that ground and found that it's a subjective decision based on personal judgements about the perceived value of the object coupled with personal income. So, a book sold for £10.00 ($15.84) might be okay for many people but one sold for £20.00 ($31.68), especially in digital form, might be considered overpriced?

Dave: Like I said, it's a rip off. It costs almost nothing to produce a digital book, once the thing's been written.

Theo: Again, that's a subjective judgement. And, in any case, you're not paying only for the object itself, but for the time it takes for that object to be created. Let me tell you about writing as a profession. The average novel in the UK sells fewer than 2,000 copies. The author gets around 10% in royalties. That means that for a book that sells for £10.00, the author might make a total of £2,000.00. Most novels take around one to two years to complete. That's just for the actual writing. Of course, the process starts a long time before the writing does, since a novel is often the condensation of a lifetime's experiences. I have to ask whether you'd be prepared to have your time valued at the pittance the author receives. I mean, do the maths. I think you'll find that this overpaid artist is getting less than £1.00 ($1.58) per hour for his time. Not what I'd call a huge return, would you? Even the book priced at £20.00 earns him only £2.00 ($3.17) per hour.

Dave: Well, what about authors like J.K.Rowling; they earn millions.

Theo: For every best-seller, there are thousands who sell only a few hundred copies, if they're lucky.

Dave: They should write better books, then.

Theo: You'd like your choice to be reduced to only those books that everyone wants to read? You'd like a diet of the same all the time, would you? Just because something isn't as popular as something else, it doesn't render it less valuable, just less marketable, which is a different thing. We all have, amongst our collections, works by what are called 'niche' artists, and they often prove to be our favourite pieces, even though they've never reached the notice of the more general population.

Dave: As long as it's easy to copy digital stuff, it'll be copied without paying for it.

Theo: So, because it's possible, it's acceptable, is it?

Dave: It's going to happen. Get used to it.

Theo: It's possible to kill with a knife. Does that make murder acceptable? It's possible to duplicate almost everything with modern technology. Piracy exists across the board in manufactured goods. Usually the pirated goods are made by what amounts to slave labour in developing countries and the industry often supports terrorists and criminal gangs. The attitude that piracy is not only acceptable but should be encouraged is responsible for financing the worst type of criminal and terrorist activity. That must make the purchasers of such goods so proud.

Dave: That's not the same thing.

Theo: Looks very much like it to me. And what are the consequences of pirating on those who produce the original works? The really talented, the brightest stars, will find different fields, somewhere they can operate and be properly paid for their efforts and the original field will be impoverished as a result. Simply because some people are unwilling to pay a reasonable price for something because they perceive it as being too expensive when provided in a digital medium, which they can easily access. The argument that it's easy to make and reproduce isn't a justification for theft. Any more than the profiteering by the industry giants is justified. What we need is a more mature and honest appraisal of the reality of the situation. We need the pirates to be honest about their activities, to accept that they're taking the bread from the mouths of those who create. And we need the large distributors to accept that they must re-examine their attitude to the sale of such items. But, in the meantime, the people who suffer as a result of the actions of both sides are the creators of the very things that both sides value. Doesn't look like justice or fairness to me, and those amongst the piracy clan who claim to be doing society a favour should perhaps examine their motives a little more closely, don't you think?

Dave: So you're saying I should pay for every CD, DVD or book I want?

Theo: It's always all or nothing, isn't it? How about a compromise? We all share things we enjoy, and that's a great thing. No author minds his readers lending or even giving away the books they've bought to friends, etc. No author objects to the resale of second hand books. This is all perfectly normal. What isn't acceptable is the mass sharing and redistribution of free copies on those file-sharing sites that enable such activity. On that level, the whole idea of sharing simply becomes mass theft. You'd be perfectly happy to share your evening meal with a friend or two who popped in unexpectedly, but you'd be a little miffed if the whole neighbourhood suddenly descended on you and expected to be fed, wouldn't you? That's the difference between personal sharing and the sharing that happens in the digital file-sharing community. And, no matter how they dress it up, how they distort the reality to justify their activities, they are acting as thieves and stealing from the very people whose work they admire and desire. No matter how you dress it up; taking something that's offered for sale and not paying for it is theft.

Dave; You're a hard man, Theo.

Theo: I hope I'm simply a fair man, Dave. Fair and honest.

What do you think? I'd value your opinions. I've been involved in discussions like this with those who think they're some sort of latter day Robin Hoods. Here's a link to one such discussion, if you're interested in further thoughts from both sides of the argument: http://digg.com/newsbar/topnews/american_isps_to_launch_massive_copyright_spying_scheme_on_july_12_the_raw_story

This is the last in the current series of ethical discussions, as they're too time-consuming to allow me to do the real work of writing. But I intend to return to the idea in the future. Let me know what you think. I really do value your input and ideas.


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