Saturday, August 13, 2011

Reflections on Piracy

To round out my current thoughts on piracy, I want to delve briefly into the nebulous quagmire of ethics.

In general, it seems that most people frown on piracy and identify it as an unacceptable behavior. This is likely due to the negative connotations associated with the word: pirates are generally considered to be unscrupulous and unsavory criminals. Few people want to be associated with such ideas, nor do they want to be imprisoned for stealing. And yet, it is not uncommon to find people who hold such beliefs to be guilty of infractions with regard to piracy.

Usually such infractions are claimed as 'minor'. Concepts of ownership and "fair use" are used as a shield, but these do not always adequately cover the situation. But more often than not, it is justification of some sort which leads the person to believe they have a moral high ground and therefore should not be considered a pirate. "I have a right," "it's all because they don't do ____," or "there are extenuating circumstances" are all excuses which I have heard -- an in the past, I've made some of them myself.

In years past, I found myself using such justifications because my friends and I were rabid anime fans. The primary justification I used surrounding this was the idea that "if this content were available here in the U.S., then I would buy it. But since it isn't, this is the only way I can experience these shows. After all, if I were in Japan, I'd just see this on TV for free anyway."

Certainly such justifications are part of human nature. Whether they are right or wrong is a matter of perspective. In many ways, each of us is a modern-day Francis Drake. On the one hand we can say that what we are doing is right; perhaps we are even heros in a way. But on the other hand, we are clearly pirates as well.

The Techstuff podcast from How Stuff Works had a very interesting discussion about this topic in an episode entitled "The Ethics of Piracy". While listening, one point stuck out to me more than any other:

You do not have a right to access content.

When I heard that I immediately agreed with it, and also realized that younger me never considered the idea. In the past, I labored under an assumption that just because something was available to someone out there, I ought to have access to it as well. That's only "fair," right? I was using this justification and pretense of fairness to mask something I hadn't ever realized: my desires were a form of selfishness.

The idea that no one has an inherent right to content was an epiphany to me. That single watershed moment changed how I look at piracy.

I do believe that everyone does have a right to some things, like education. And there are some things in the 'public domain' like art and literature which are so engrained with our cultures that we need them to function. At the very least, people ought to have the same opportunities; but we know that isn't the case in practice as we look at the problems across the world. But that does not mean that people can claim unilateral access to content; especially content created for the livelihood of another.

Luckily, the Internet is making it easier to have legitimate access to content. There is a lot available on the web. New services (like Netflix and Hulu) make it easier and cheaper to watch things you want to watch. iTunes and Pandora make it easier to get music. These types of things can drastically reduce the impulse to justify one's piracy.

Personally, I am happy to have come to this new paradigm. I intend to dispose of my metaphorical jolly roger as I have no further need for it. Hopefully this insight will help me to identify similar things in my life in the future so I can better understand myself, others, and gain some small bit of wisdom.