Issue #1 - Piracy and Theft

With SOPA and PIPA gone, but ACTA almost through, it is time to yet again discuss our (mis-)conceptions on the topic of piracy. While it definitely is a topic with various shades of grey attached to it, it also is a topic misunderstood fairly often. But why is that the case in the first place, and why does this topic split the gaming community even more than “console wars” already do?
First of all, I would like to explain what you should expect from the upcoming lines. “A Geek’s Lingo” is supposed to touch some of the current main topics and look at the discussion itself, and the issues we have when trying to talk about these topics. Are our definitions correct? Do the terms we use express what we want them to? And most importantly: What is the conclusion, the solution?
As such, we’ll start with piracy, which is effectively the word with the widest variety when it comes to definitions. We have publishers calling it outright “theft”, which we’ll talk about later-on. We have pro-piracy gamers calling it “a means of protest” or “a way to avoid regional and financial restrictions”. We have regular people pretending “piracy hurts no-one”, as it does not bring actual loss. And we have politicians using it to push for intrusive – and fishy in regards to censorship – bills such as SOPA, PIPA and ACTA.
But what does “piracy” actually mean?
“Piracy” – in regards to media – is the act of copying and redistributing data without the creator’s consent. This does not even mean it needs to be free of charge for the final consumer. Said charge just doesn’t go to the creator, and whoever else is involved in the original distribution.
Now, this means there is a product distributed to some people, which has not been “produced” by the ones in charge of “production”, and does not generate any revenue for them either. If we consider the model of a free market, that would actually be legal, as it is part of it: People have the means to duplicate the item, and as such the right to redistribute the copies just as well as the original, since they “produced” the copies by themselves.
A socially regulated market on the other hand secures one’s rights to keep their hands on their brains’ offspring. We call that “copyright” and it’s the core of the issues with piracy in the first place – and it causes a monopoly on a certain item – as it is produced and distributed by its creator only.
This is no different from the rest of the market, though. A very specific product is only sold by its creator and from that point on only this one unit that has been sold can be re-sold by a vendor. In theory, one could invest some time and money and create an identical copy of this item. This actually happens to clothing and footwear quite often, but it is still illegal, as it equals fraud – since people believe it was produced by the creator, not someone else, with a different quality as a result.
Now, the issue is … With data this doesn’t work. Data can easily be copied, as it is really only a series of zeroes and ones, not a complex combination of materials and the way they have been processed and stored. As such there is no loss of quality when copied.
With that said, piracy is not fraud.
Could it be theft then?
“What is theft?” is the question first to be asked. “Theft” is the act of taking an object from its owner, without his consent to do so.
When copying the data of a videogame, music track or movie, one does not steal a unit from the creator, obviously. Redistributing the copy to someone on the other hand “steals” a sale, one might argue. So the next question is, whether or not a sale can be “stolen”.
Stealing a sale would mean that the sale was removed from where it originally was supposed to be. Sounds weird, but it is quite simple: This model implies that the “customer” actually considers buying it at the official store before the choice goes to the – mostly cheaper and more convenient – “pirated” distribution.
In that case, yes, it is theft. A sale was stolen. There is no way around that.
Sounds like a “but” incoming …
Indeed, there is. When speaking of piracy, there are shades of grey. We do have the outright theft when it’s literally just about getting the same product at less of an investment. But we also have the people who don’t even consider the “correct” path. Be it those, who cannot afford the product and as such would not buy it anyways. Be it those, who use it as a means of protest and as such would otherwise just pull an all-out-boycott on the product … while they do want to use it nonetheless. Be it those, who cannot obtain the item due to regional restrictions.
Yes, those are morally questionable, as they use the product without any reward for the creators whatsoever. But they aren’t “lost sales”, as they would not buy it otherwise either – either because they can’t, or because they don’t wish to support the creators for whatever reasons.
As such these people are hardly “thieves” either. What are they then?
The answer to this very question is the answer to the entire debate about the moral grounds of piracy as a whole. Due to the nature of the question, though, it cannot be answered fully.

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