The real problem with piracy

I’d lie if I said I have never pirated anything in my life. Having been growing up in Poland on the brink of abolishing the communist regime, I haven’t even been aware of concepts such as intellectual property rights or legal/illegal software.

I’d get the games and software for my first microcomputers (ZX Spectrum, Atari 65XE and then Commodore 64C) from the mail-in, photocopied catalogues. I’d pick what I wanted from the list, send them an empty audio cassette, transfer an equivalent of $5 and within a week or two receive the tape back, filled with anywhere between 8 to 30 games. All the games came with a crack intro and often a “trainer” hack, allowing infinite lives and other cheats. (On a completely separate note, these intros were what sparked my initial interest in using computers for art.)

Cassettes with pirated games
Cassettes with pirated games. Photo by BufetPRL

We even had Copy Parties – weekly events, similar to today’s LAN Parties, where people would simply copy games and programs from one another using a two-deck cassette recorders.

If I wanted music, I’d go to the audio store and simply purchase an entire discography of an artist. A single album would run me for maybe $2 or so – again, on the pirated cassettes (we’re talking times before CDs, or just on the verge of CDs being introduced). Each tape would have a fairly well printed cover, track list and a design and layout typical to the distributor – so no matter what the artist, they all looked great next to one another on my shelves.

Pirate cassette cover
Pirate cassette cover by TAKT music.

And then something weird happened. I went to the store one day to check for new arrivals and found a tape by some Norwegian death metal band – but it was different. The cover actually used the whole size of the inlay. It was printed on a richer, glossy paper with high-DPI offset. When opened, the inlay unrolled to reveal lyrics to every single song!

The cassette itself was clear, not opaque with print on the actual plastic and not on a cheap sticker. Clearly it was a much cooler way of presenting the product. I took out my spare change ready to purchase it, but the cashier pointed at the price tag. It was over 20 times more expensive than I was used to. I did not have that kind of money to spend on music, nor have I felt it to be a fair price.

Neither did any of my friends.

Soon a division begun to form in our purchase habits. We would clearly see the “cheap” and the “original” options, but mostly opt for the pirate ones, reserving the expensive purchases only for certain bands that we found worthy the honor of being paid (I think it was mostly Metallica at that time).

I never felt like I am cheating or stealing from the other artists, but more like I was tipping the ones I liked. The presence and availability of pirated media (Polish intellectual property laws were just being discussed for the first time back then) only reinforced this belief.

Shop with pirated software
Shop with pirated software. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.
(The photo is actually from India, not Turkey, but it gets the point across)

Moving to Turkey and establishing a studio there certainly did not help my perception. The piracy runs rampant there and for a while it was much easier to find pirated media than the original one. With ridiculous import taxes imposed on software, for many it was the only way to access programs for their craft.

The piracy was (and from what I hear, still is) so prevalent that I had hard time explaining to my friends why my Nintendo Wii and Playstation were not modded. The media changed from cassettes to CDs and DVDs but the logic remained the same – originals are too expensive, piracy is not stealing, it’s copying, etc. etc.

As a content creator, I experienced piracy and IP theft from the other side as well. My website and works have been plagiarized many times. My free tutorials and templates were stolen and sold for money by shady Indian and Russian sites. Slightly modified versions of my expressions have been turned into scripts and can be found (and purchased) from some of the major plugin and script sites. No, I don’t see a dime from that. Even my commercial works have been copied, recut and used without my permission.

I think it simply comes with the territory.

I guess what I am trying to say in this overly long introduction is: I have experienced piracy from both sides of the fence – both as a pirate and as a victim of piracy. I have participated in advocacy of piracy and in movements dedicated to eradicate it.

I do realize that piracy can sometimes be the only way to access certain media. With governments jacking the import taxes, distributors selectively launching only in certain markets, or developers abandoning the development – it can be an instrument for good. But it comes at a price.

The real problem with piracy is not just the lost profits that the author may or may not have made. It’s not the possibility of malware being attached to the programs or decreased ad revenue of TV channels.

The real problem with piracy is how it affects your perception of the product’s value.

Randy Marsh talks about weed
Randy Marsh talks about weed: South Park Season 6 episode 16

A while ago, South Park run an episode in which Randy Marsh explains to Stan about the dangers of smoking marijuana. It was not about being a gateway drug or funding terrorism. The real danger was that weed makes you feel it’s ok to be bored and do nothing. I think he drew an excellent point.

Similarly, piracy makes you feel it’s OK to simply take music, movies, TV, games and software for free. That these are the things you do not need to pay for. That they don’t have real value, or their value is truly really low and artificially inflated.

We live in the society where “valuable” is often paired with “difficult”. Hand-made is more valuable than factory-made. Oil painting is more valuable than digital print. An animation made of 30,000 pieces of cut vinyl is more valuable than a CGI animation that looks identical, but was made on a computer. (I believe this value system is ultimately flawed and wrong, but that’s a topic for another article).

Pirating media only stands to reinforce this belief.

Why should I pay $60 for a game if I can get it for free? Why should I pay cinema admission when I can download it from The Pirate Bay? Why should I pay this artist when I can just copy some existing idea? Why should I support originality and creativity when I can just gather some references and outsource the VFX to India?

After all, all this digital stuff doesn’t really have any value and distributors just inflate the prices.

The low-value perception of one piece of media affects purchase decisions of another. Over time it becomes a natural choice to go with a free option. Propagated enough, this devaluation can even affect content creators who cease to strive for quality, themselves believing in the meaninglessness of their craft.

Steam Store
Steam Store

It took me many years to regain the appreciation for the makers of the software I use. Music and movies came next. These days I can say I am pretty much done with pirated content.

I think the turning point was when Valve Software introduced their online content distribution system (store): Steam. For the first time it became more convenient to purchase a legal game over the Internet, instead of going to a store with slightly cheaper, illegal copies. I could get the game on day one and did not have to wait for someone to crack the DRM (Digital Rights Management protection). My software would get updated whenever the patches were released, and it simply felt good to actually support the authors of the software.

Over the years more and more services started coming out. iTunes, Origin, Adobe Creative Cloud, Blizzard Store, Google Play. Today, I can easily purchase any type of content I need right from the comfort of my own chair. Convenience won over being cheap.

Do I get tempted to simply torrent the latest flick sometimes? Sure.

Do I sometimes download a piece of software that did not release a demo to try it before I buy? …maybe.

With each dollar spent on software and entertainment I appreciate the value of what I consume more and more. As a result, I end up making better choices with my purchases. And well… I don’t screw over all the hard working artists and programmers.

And it’s all good, until the Star Trek future comes around and we completely abolish money, sometime between now and the 24th century.