Back in January, users of the Internet were faced with an interesting phenomenon – the SOPA/PIPA blackout. When American legislators introduced a bill that would give unprecedented power to the government over the Internet, consumers had no choice but to react. To be fair, the heart of the SOPA/PIPA bills were innocent. All they wanted was to provide a way for producers to protect their intellectual property. On the surface, those bills were meant to fight against Internet piracy.
But let’s open up a can of worms and think about this for a minute. Does piracy really need to be combated? Is Internet piracy bad? Or does it carry a number of benefits with it?
I’m here to argue that Internet piracy – while wrong – can provide a few benefits.
Disclaimer: Piracy Is Illegal!
In this context, when I speak about piracy, I mean the act of copying and acquiring computer data (video, music, software, etc.) without the authorization to do so. A lot of the definitions can get gritty, murky, and convoluted, so let’s just leave it at that.
Despite how you feel about piracy, it is illegal – at least for now. Even though this article observes some of the benefits of Internet piracy, MakeUseOf does not condone any action that leads to the breaking of laws.
Discovering The Unknown
Organizations like the MPAA will often claim that they are losing millions – even billions – of dollars to Internet piracy. After all, if Internet piracy didn’t exist, then consumers would have no choice but to buy products legally, right?
Not so. Just because I pirate a movie doesn’t mean that I would’ve bought it if piracy wasn’t an option. Sometimes, the only reason I’ve even seen some movies is because I was able to watch it for free. I didn’t feel that they were worth spending money to watch. In that case, the MPAA really hasn’t lost anything.
On the contrary, Internet piracy could actually be beneficial for mass media. If you pirate, then consider this question – how many music artists and TV shows have you discovered through illegal means that you would’ve glossed over otherwise?
Piracy allows us to discover media that we would’ve otherwise skipped. It could be argued that Internet piracy is actually what placed some bands and TV shows on the map thanks to word of mouth. Perhaps without piracy, they would’ve faded away into obscurity.
Accessing The Inaccessible
Suppose you’re wandering the Internet and you keep hearing about how Breaking Bad is the best TV show ever. Suppose you live all the way out in Venezuela or Siberia where they don’t air the show. What are you supposed to do?
Perhaps you’re fully willing to fork over some money to watch the show legally, but you can’t. You would buy the DVDs but nobody ships to your location. You would buy access to stream online but it’s not available in your country. When there are no legal means to access a product, what can you do?
For some, Internet piracy is the only way to access products that are otherwise unavailable. Some may call this self-entitlement. Others may call it fairness. I’ll leave that one up to you.
Spurring Technological Advancements
Have you heard of BitTorrent? I’m sure you have. It’s an amazing file distribution protocol that has many legal applications. For example, Blizzard Entertainment uses it to distribute their games. Florida State University uses it to distribute scientific data to researchers.
However, despite its legality, BitTorrent is mostly known for its connection to Internet piracy. Unlike direct downloads, where you download files directly from a host server, the BitTorrent protocol does not require a centralized network. There is no host. Thus, there is no direct “owner” that can be held culpable, and that means easier piracy.
If Internet piracy hadn’t existed, would the BitTorrent technology be as widespread? It could be argued that Internet piracy had its hand in pushing forward the development of this file sharing protocol.
Then there’s Internet streaming. What if instead of being tied down to a network schedule (e.g., you must be available at 9pm on Mondays to watch House), you could watch your TV shows at your own convenience? That’s the question that Netflix and Hulu have tried to answer.
Piracy is not always about price. In the past, I’ve pirated episodes of TV because I just couldn’t find the time to watch it live. And now, I know plenty of ex-pirates who only stopped pirating their shows because Netflix filled that void. Without piracy, perhaps we’d still be stuck to our analog televisions without a Netflix on the horizon.
Making a Stand
In capitalistic societies, our demands are determined by our actions. We vote with our wallets, and producers and corporations will respond to that consumer demand. In this kind of world, piracy is another way that we can vote.
In an effort to maintain their power, media corporations will often go to extreme measures to make sure that their handhold on the market does not falter. For example, consider DRM technology. Since its inception, it has been widely protested – from video games to music to DVD purchases.
After reading the above comic, it’s easy to see why someone would opt to pirate. Not only is it free, and not only is it more convenient, but piracy doesn’t treat legitimate customers like criminals. In the world of anti-piracy, paying customers are punished while pirates remain free.
In some sense, pirating can be an effective means of voting with your wallet – or as the case may be, not using your wallet at all.
To reiterate, Internet piracy is illegal according to current law. You may or may not think that Internet piracy is immoral, but I think it’s clear that there are definitely benefits to its existence.
What are your thoughts?