So piracy is back in the news this week with the US government's proposed "Joint Strategic Plan to combat intellectual property theft". Cue the typical hand waving and ranting from both sides of the orchard.

I always hate times like this because it seems that no one is able to have an adult conversation about the issues and, so, Copyright is still broken and the RIAA still think suing people is better than sorting out proper digital media for me to enjoy.


Allow me to review some of the typical "bunk" statements that get rolled out by both sides.

"Piracy is theft"

This is always a good poster boy for the pro-Copyright brigade. This time Joe Biden trucked it out for them:
"It's smash and grab, no different than a guy walking down Fifth Avenue and smashing the window at Tiffany's and reaching in and grabbing what's in the window."
Pro-piracy advocates get to have a merry little dance at statements like this; and rightly so, it is an amusing concept. Partly from a practical perspective (copyright infringement is a civil matter, not criminal) but also from a moral one. It does seem unfair to label all of those downloading unauthorized material as "theives" compared to someone stealing a physical item.

What gets argued is that "theft" is a way of describing the act in "raw, understandable terms" (or something). I may be cynical but I suspect the real aim is:

  • to guilt people into not pirating by making it morally inappropriate
  • to pave the way for making copyright infringement a criminal matter
It is the last that worries me.

Ultimately how I always feel is this; if someone is pirating your work then I don't mind if you call them a thief (in anger or whatever). But if you're not one of those people then it's a weasel word to be using.

"You do not have the right to expect to profit from your work"

This is one from the pirates (often accompanied with lots of high fives and "yarrrr"-ing :P). And this time it is me rolling eyes and smirking.

What this argument highlights is merely a rhetoric failure, for the following reason: it is the truth and not something you can dispute.


So is the reverse. "You do not have the right to expect to receive other peoples work for free". In absolute fairness I have heard that uttered a few times from the likes of the RIAA.

I fail to see the use of simple, logical concepts like this. Yes, you are both right. Can we please stop using it as an argument. I do not have the right to expect you to pay me for X, but you don't have the right to take X for free. Impasse established, let's keep negotiating.


To demonstrate this point I want to quote Swombat (via HN)
"Intellectual property" is a contradictory concept. Claiming that ideas, thoughts, and other non-physical entities "belong" to someone is contradicting the very nature of the universe.
I called that "pseudo-philosophical mumbo jumbo" in a reply comment, which was possibly a little unfair. But I think it is a true assessment. The problem is that it breaks down in the "real world".

The whole original concept of intellectual property, copyright and patents were built on the idea that there had to be some way to quantify and protect the value of a persons work. In a general sense, of course, no one can "own" an idea but, to save protracted philosophical arguments, we invented some social rules that cover such situations.

It seems reasonable (and right!) to argue the limits of those rules - but their existence?

It is pretty impossible to copy protect digital media anyway

True. You are using this as a pro-piracy argument?

Oh dear.

Piracy Harms/Helps X

This is my "favourite" bunk argument.

Of course; there is a lot of "data" supporting both sides but, as with all these things, most of it is a case of selective interpretation.

The problem is that it is so hard to estimate the impact of such a broad (and relatively untrackable) activity like piracy on a wide range of heuristics. Often it is claimed piracy hurts sales; which I am sure is true in some cases, but how do you identify that? Sales are affected in lots of ways and to this point I've not seen any "proof with numbers attached".

I hate this argument because there is a tendency to pick numbers out of the air - and that not only harms the argument but makes you look pretty silly (yes, RIAA, I am looking at you).

The opposing point is that piracy can promote sales/revenue. The oft cited example is that musicians make the most money (sorry, record companies fleech the most money from musicians :)) via live performances and that piracy of their music increases people's exposure and therefore can drive ticket sales. It's a good argument and I am pretty sure that in a lot of cases it is true.

The issue I have had with this particular idea is that it is ignoring the fact that the content creator ends up with no choice. You are promoting yourself this way, tough, no option.


Of the whole Hacker News thread that grew from the original news article one comment from Pyre stuck out at me:
Copyrights, trademarks, and patents also weren't as complex and over-bearing when they were first created as they are today. If anything, the content industries only have themselves to blame with their egregious extensions to copyright terms amongst other things.
This pretty much sums up my feelings on the whole matter.

As a concept I don't think intellectual property is a bad idea; in fact I think it has been a pretty acceptable "social hack" in the past. The problem is our growing litigious and regimented modern culture. Where everyone has absolute rights and "the right thing to do" only seems to apply when it is useful.

This malaise is not limited to the issues of piracy and copyright. At its root our modern culture is slowly rotting.

I've been on both sides of the piracy debate. Not all that long ago I was downloading music and watching films from torrents, it was easy and came with no moral and little legal risk. I came to understand the (personal) moral guilt of what I was doing and stopped; now if something costs too much or (the more likely case) is not available to me I just get mad, or rant or shrug.

I've also been the "victim" (though I do hesitate to use that word) of piracy. What makes it so amusing is that I am a huge Free Software advocate and release the vast majority of my code with a BSD/MIT license. Pretty much all of my written word gets released under various open licenses. The very few times I have not done so it has been pirated. My very short lived "career" with an indie games programmer was blighted by piracy.

The worst thing part is that consumers are consistently the losers whatever happens.

Content creators (and particular lobby groups like the RIAA) are obsessed with stamping out piracy with a load of ill considered schemes rather than developing modern and usable digital media distribution. We have the technology to be able to watch the latest films online all over the world; and yet only a tiny minority are available in an even smaller number of countries.

My stance? Being pirated tastes very sour, and I dislike the scratty little b'tards who did it to me (I tried to offer you value at a fair cost, screw you :)). But on the other hand I hate the scratty little b'tards of the RIAA who want to sue people thousands of dollars per illegal download. I think the solution is in simplification and streamlining of copyright law and work to limit the ability of corporations to use their massive legal resources in litigation (this is a wider problem also). I also think we should, collectively, encourage media creators to come to the internet with better consumer offerings. Though, really, what is needed is a paradigm shift in society where paying for digital media becomes an acceptable alternative, where people can see the effort that goes into creating stuff for them and where we are less worried about litigation and riches and more worried about making cool stuff!

More importantly can we stop throwing out these bunk arguments and address real issues. Please. :)

(I'm not even going to start dissecting Obama's new "Strategic Plan", it's "nails on the blackboard" painful all round)