Digital Media Piracy

(Part 2)


Software piracy is a complicated issue with no simple solutions or simple causes. First we’ll try to explain the reason why people might commit software piracy, and then we’ll attempt to explore how they might rationalize there actions.

There are most likely many factors which plays into when and why a person commits software piracy. From looking at global rates we can probably draw a few connections. The top offenders by percentage, as in the rate in which the nation commits software piracy is Vietnam and China, at an amazing 97% and 94% respectively[4]. With those percentages, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume the governments of those countries are probably committing software piracy themselves, which leads to one variable in the equation, which is government enforcement. The US has the lowest rate of software piracy in the world, one of the key factors is likely to be enforcement. The FBI actively enforces copyright laws, and at over $100,000 fine per citation, there is a strong dissuasion to pirating software. But the US government has good reason to police the piracy rates of it’s people. Most of the software pirated in the world is made in the US, made by tax paying corporations, and what’s bad for corporate America, is bad for America. Vietnam and China on the other hand have little incentive to enforce copyright laws, little to no tax revenue can be generated from a lower piracy rate, rather it would cost huge sums of tax dollars to fight piracy. Additionally, US citizens have more money than Vietnamese and Chinese citizens, and can better afford software, where as Vietnamese and Chinese probably can’t even afford the software even if they wanted to pay for it.

By dollar amount, The US still accounts for $2.9 billion dollars worth of pirated software, only marginally behind top offenders by percentage. Even with the lowest piracy rate of 24%, the US simply has a higher number of computer users, so by total dollar amount, US citizens are still pirating plenty of software. There are however still many reasons for a US citizen to pirate software, the least of which is economical reasons. The most recent version of Adobe Photoshop, a commonly used application, lists for $649. Photoshop is the industry standard application for photography and graphic arts, and as such is generously used by many amateur photographers and artists as well, most of whom would never pay $649 for the application. This is where there is an interesting situation. I believe that the estimated lost revenue due to software piracy is somewhat inflated. The estimation is simply based upon the total number of pirated copies of a piece of software, times it’s cost. This in fact is a unrealistic estimation. If for example, software piracy was made impossible today, Adobe would not then benefit from a drastic increase in Photoshop sales. All the people would could now no longer pirate a copy of Photoshop, would either simply live without the program, or look for a free, or cheaper alternative, only very few would indeed purchase the software. So the lost of $2.9 billion dollars due to piracy in America would not be wholly recovered, realistically only a small fraction would be recovered. There however can be even more interesting long term problems. Continuing with the Photoshop example, many users pirate a copy, use it to some degree and become familiar with the application. Years down the road, when they find themselves in the market for a graphics application, for one reason or another, they would then naturally purchase Adobe Photoshop because it is what they are familiar with. This model has actually been recognized by many software development companies, who now makes student versions of there software at an extreme discount for the soul purpose of allowing users to become familiar with the application now, and hope they purchase a regular license in the future when the time arises.

This leads to the suggestion that the marketing of software is not a natural act. Software, and digital media in general is not like any other product on the store shelves. Software does not have a physical form which needs to be tangible in order to be enjoyed. This is evident by the sales tactics of software, software often comes in large boxes with only a CD, a small manual inside, and the rest is just air. This is done simply to give the buyer a sense that he’s actually buying something tangible. In fact, the buyer does not buy the software at all, all he or she is buying is simply the right to use that software. He could legally purchase an application, throw the CD away, and simply use a friends copy. There is no physical element associated with the purchase of software, but for one reason or another, the powers that be, decided to sell software, a non-tradition product, in the most traditional manner possible, in big colorful boxes on a store shelf. Attempts have been made to make the software more traditional. A product license “key” is packaged with the software as both a means to limit piracy as well as give the impression that there’s actually something in the box that’s necessary in order to use the software. More extreme examples are what’s called hardware dongles, where an actual hardware device is packaged with the software and is connected to the computer, and the software will only run if the hardware dongle is detected. This is perhaps the most obtuse example of giving the impression that there’s a physical device associated with software. Everything has a nature to it, and digital media’s nature is not to be contained in a box on a store shelf, but rather as a free flowing stream of bits which stays on a computer for long or short and easily propagates from one machine to another. And this is just what the Internet lends it’s self to. It’s no wonder the internet is such a success. Even though computers is man made, everything still has a nature, and if something is against it’s nature, problems will arise, and if something fit’s it’s nature, nothing will stop it from flowing in that direction, and the internet is defiantly a part of computer’s nature. And a unfortunate side effect of the internet is that it lends it’s self to software piracy.

Software piracy on the internet becomes something of a moral black hole. It seems as if any morals used in the real world is abandoned as soon as someone gets on the internet and is looking for something to download, but this simply can’t be, more likely the case, people are simply justifying there actions with a different set of morals on the internet. And to make it clear, software piracy is not morally indifferent; software piracy is very simply another form of theft, something that is regarded as morally wrong in many moral philosophies. It would defiantly be wrong according to Kant, who believes in, “The categorical imperative”[5], in which certain actions is always wrong, no matter what, and certain actions is right, no matter what, and theft would fall into the always wrong category. Virtue ethics would also peg software piracy as wrong, no matter what since software piracy is theft, and theft is defiantly not a virtuous act.

What then, would be ethics which could justify software piracy to most people? Normal, basic moral principles and rules become hard to apply on the internet. A commonly used moral standard is the, “Golden Rule”, a moralist philosophy[6], which is usually summed up as, “Do onto others as you would have others do to you.” This can account for a lot of the honesty found in the world, but it’s difficult to apply this moral to software piracy because for one, it’s difficult for the average person to imagine what it would be like for others to be pirating our software, and even worse, when people do imagine this scenario, they also imagine being incredibly wealthy and not caring that people are pirating their software, on the contrary it would almost encouraging them to do so. A possible alternative could be the mind set of, “An eye for an eye”[7], brought about by the general feeling that software companies are ripping the consumers off. Microsoft is stuck in an endless stream of legal battles with the federal government over monopoly laws, and just recently Microsoft was hit by the same charges in Europe, making it a truly global issue. Users could then be morally justifying there actions by reasoning that they are entitled to there revenge by way of free software for having been stolen from by the large software firms in the past. Another possible answer is the Utilitarianism approach. Those who pirate software could argue that since software piracy is a “victimless crime”, it doesn’t actually hurt anyone, and as such, is not morally wrong. There are other possibilities, but I propose that these reasons are the most commonly ones cited, and should account for the moral justification of most software pirates.

At this point, it could be asked, why someone who pirates software even needs a justification. I could be argued that those who pirate software is already lacking in moral fiber, why then would they even bother giving it any thought, most likely simply don’t care about the matter. I however do not believe that people simply don’t care about things, even if someone only gives it a small thought, shrugs, and says, “What does it matter?”, implying that it does not matter, they have basically given the utilitarian argument that moral issues are based upon the outcome of an action, and if the outcome is benign, as in it doesn’t matter to anyone, then it is morally justifiable. I do not believe there is a single person who can honestly say they have given the issue no thought, whether they know it or not, they have made a moral stance on the issue. There however is still the question of why everyone has to morally justify there actions, why can’t they just know what they are doing is morally wrong, and accept it. When I was in undergraduate, in a moral philosophy class, my professor, Dr. Shrag of Cal Poly Pomona, said, “Everyone believes two things about themselves. One, that they are an above average driver, and two, that they are morally above average as well”. There are very few people who accepts that they are morally wrong. Even movie villains fight for what they are fighting for because they think they are right. In “Star Wars”, the portrayed dark empire was fighting simply to keep there government intact, to stave off the “rebels”, or what we Americans would call, terrorists. So indeed, I believe everyone takes a moral stance on the issue, and indeed I believe everyone believes their actions are morally justifiable.

The RIAA, Recording Industry Association of America, and the MPAA, Motion Picture Association of America, are going through similar issues as what the software industry is going through. They too are experiencing the problem resulting from attempting to market a non physical digital media as a traditional physical, in a box, sits on a shelf, product. They are however combating the issue in marked different ways. The RIAA and MPAA cannot ask for a product key, or require a hardware dongle in order to use there products. Their products rely on more traditional technology, and there means of combating piracy also relies on more traditional means, and the RIAA has gotten down right medieval with there scare tactics by indiscriminately suing violators, the most notable case involving a twelve year old girl[8]. This and the issue of several major RIAA members being charged and found guilty of a price fixing scheme, all too easily allow for pirates to morally justify there actions as just taking revenge for being mistreated in the pass. The RIAA and MPAA both have the same problem the software industry has, which is the public image of being fat cats, which illicit no sympathy for there situation, and makes it all too easy for people to morally justify their actions. Attempting to hold onto the same business model of selling a physical product, the RIAA engages in a series of cat-and-mouse games in an attempt to find technologies which will allow them to better control there product, but there most recent adventures in challenging the public to crack their newest protection scheme[9] only resulted in public embarrassment when researches defeated the challenge in a scant month[10].

The problems of copyright infringements the software industry, RIAA, and MPAA are dealing with, are sadly only self made problems. All three attempt to change the nature of the product they produce. I doubt they themselves are surprised by the resistance they face. And all three have poor public relationships which gains no public sympathy to side with them. The three all need make a shift in there business model, going from one of physical product, to one of taking advantage of the internet, and the nature of a easily propagating product. There have already been a few examples of companies taking these steps, and no surprise they are having excellent success with it. Apple’s iTunes[11] for example have been doing very well hocking MP3s on the internet, the very thing the RIAA is suing people for. The industry will most likely change, and hopefully for the better. But in the mean time, people will continue to do what they do, and continently morally justify there actions at the same time.

[1] , “Sixth Annual BSA Global Software Piracy Study”, May 2001

[2], “Anti-Piracy”

[3], “Insiders blamed for most online movie piracy”, September, 2003

[4] , “Sixth Annual BSA Global Software Piracy Study”, May 2001

[5], “Philosophy of Immanuel Kant”, 2003

[6], “Emotionalist Moral Philosophy: Sympathy and the Moral Theory that Overthrew Kings”, 1988




Digital Media Piracy