The Issue of Digital Piracy

With the accelerating advancement of technology this turn of the century and the development and popularity of the internet, we as a society are facing issues that are greatly unique to our generation. Of these issues, one of the more controversial ones is the issue of digital piracy and whether or not it is an immoral act. In 1996, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed unanimously by the US Senate and with the signature of President Bill Clinton. Its purpose was to criminalize the production and circulation of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent measures to control access to copyrighted works. Yet, with the creation of P2P services like Napster that allowed for peer-to-peer file sharing and a revolution in the entertainment industry resulting in their product going from being tied to a physical medium, such as a cassette tape, CD, or DVD, to digital formats such as MP3s, piracy has become much more accessible and common to the average person. As a person who grew up in the time period where services like LimeWire were popular and personally know people who pirate music, movies, and video games, I decided to choose this topic because it pertains to my daily life. It is in my honest opinion that I believe digital piracy is immoral.

Proponents for piracy often argue that it is not an act of theft and that it is not immoral. To them, piracy is a natural response to a change in the market and strict copyright legislation and enforcement is a sign of the entertainment industry latching onto old ways and refusing to adopt to the new market. Some advocates have even argued that piracy is good for long-term profits. People who pirate music, for example, are likely to discover more music, give artists who they would have ignored otherwise a chance, and results in more disposable income for them go to live shows or purchase merchandise to make sure the artist gets more money. Others have argued that many artists already make so much money that it’s a nonissue while some have argued that the whole format of the industry only gives artists a miniscule portion of the profit per song anyways, so they believe pirating the artist’s songs is a form of opposition to the shady industry as a whole. For others, piracy is justified because they cannot afford to spend money on digital content and believe they deserve the same amount of exposure to culture as anyone else would. One user argued that piracy is not immoral because digital products do not require additional costs to duplicate and the original copy is still the owner’s, therefore it is not theft. For TV shows, many have used Game of Thrones as an example of how, as long as a show or movie is good enough, pirating only allows those who would otherwise not be able to watch the show to “spread the word” and basically offer free advertisement of the show. The show’s success, despite being labeled the “Most Pirated TV Show,” is a sign that piracy can be beneficial.

However, there are legitimate concerns about piracy.  For one, I believe digital piracy is a form of theft. Digital content such as music, movies, TV shoes, or video games are a form of art and I believe art has value. While there are many justifications for piracy, the fact is that, at the end of the day, you are receiving something of value for free that another person had to pay for and it is something that was not yours nor was it something consensually given to you by the owner.

The creation of any form of art is a process that takes time, effort, and money. It also requires resources to advertise or create awareness of the product and to provide the product to be consumed. Pirating a form of digital content is stealing a potential sale away from a company or individual and it greatly hurts new or independent artists, filmmakers, and game developers. In one example, Greenheart Games, a new video game developer, decided to release their first project, a business simulator titled Game Dev Tycoon, into the market DRM-free, meaning that there is no limit to the usage of the digital media placed by them, and at a retail price of $8.00. They also released a cracked copy of the game alongside the game’s release and uploaded it to a major torrent sharing site. As they state in their blog, a minute after uploading the game, all three torrents (one for each platform that the game was released on) received huge amounts of traffic and the developer’s upload speed was maxed. The cracked copy of the game and the retail version were identical, except that, in the illegal copy, the developers added an in-game message that would pop up after hours of play informing them that their in-game company was having trouble with people pirating their games until their company went bankrupt.

In a hilarious, twisted case of irony, many of these players who had pirated the game rushed to official forums complaining at how unjust it was that all their hard work went to waste because of pirates, with one user asking if there was a way he could implement DRM (Digital Rights Management) in-game.


At the end of the first day of release, the developers found that they had sold 214 legitimate retail copies of the game while the cracked copy of the game had been downloaded by at least 3104 users. In other words, 93.6% of people who owned the game had stolen it.

This is an example of how pirating can be disastrous for smaller, lesser known artists. As Patrick Klug, cofounder and developer of Greenheart Games said, “. . . as the developer, who spent over a year creating this game and hasn’t drawn a salary yet, I wanted to cry. Surely, for most of these players, the 8 dollars wouldn’t hurt them but it makes a huge difference to our future!”

In another example in the video game industry, an indie company named Hunted Cows was forced to shut down because of high levels of server load caused by large numbers of pirated copies of the game attempting to connect. In other words, their game was pirated so often that they were unable to support the game for those who had bought it legitimately and, as a result, had to shut down and refund all paying customers.

In film, piracy has had a substantial effect on the entire industry. In a study by independent researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, it was found that digital movie revenues increased after the Shutdown of MegaUpload, an online service that allowed for file storage, viewing and distribution. With one study by NetNames showing that “infringing bandwith use rose by 159.3% between 2010 and 2012. . .[and] that 327 million unique Internet users ‘explicitly sought’ infringing content during January 2013 [alone at] a jump of almost 10% from November, 2011, it is without a doubt that piracy has a huge impact. According to an article in IndieWire, the number of films released annually by major film companies have dropped 37% from 2006 to 2013, films from “art house labels” have dropped 63% from 2007 to 2013, and studio development budgets have decreased while major distributors have increasingly decided to ‘play it safe’ with sequels and remakes. In an article in Variety, the author says, “Development slates have been compressed, meaning fewer projects, reduced writing fees and lower expectations from top management.” One executive interviewed mentions how studios have “lost the enthusiasm for projects that drift through multiple drafts. . .[and are] increasingly. . .making one-draft deals with writers.”

In part to counter piracy in the music industry, the rising popularity of streaming services, such as Spotify, have tried to counter piracy by making listening to music a less expensive and convenient experience. However, many artists, including David Bryne, Radiohead, Black Keys, Bob Dylan, Metallica, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and, more recently, Taylor Swift, have pulled their music from the service because of poor pay. Seen as the possible next step for the music industry after the transition to online music sales through iTunes, the New York Times has also come out to criticize the poor pay artists receive for each listen. For example, Zoe Keating, an “avant-garde” cello musician, received less than $1700 from Pandora, despite receiving over 1.5 million plays. While streaming services seems to be the best way so far to counter piracy, it comes at the cost of hurting smaller artist. Even PSY, famous for the YouTube sensation “Gangnam Style,” received less than $60,000 from online music sales in South Korea, despite having more than 2 billion people watch his music video for ‘Gangnam Style,’ due to the popularity of a subscription-based streaming service in South Korea that pays an average of 0.2 cents per listen. Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of Industrial Economics found that France’s HADOPI law, which would disconnected those who were suspected of piracy from the internet, lead to a 20-25% increase in music sales in France.

Piracy is immoral for a number of reasons. The shift in the entertainment industry to a digital distribution business model does not remove the moral obligation we have to pay for a product we consume and enjoy. It is an act that greatly affects independent or ‘smaller’ artists who rely on every dollar to make a living and, even if the artist is not struggling, takes from an artist’s Constitutionally-given right to make money from their intellectual property. While I agree with advocates for piracy that the current system is not perfect and that copyright laws can get messy, I believe most people believe there is, at least, some small shred of immorality in pirating digital content. However, it’s free and it’s easy, so we do it anyways and we work backwards to justify our actions. At the end of the day, most of us would download a car if we could.

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