Piracy is not a solution, but it’s easier than actual alternatives

Over the past 30 or more years, a war is raging. The war between pirates and copyright holders started with pirated software and certainly influenced our geek culture. When most people hear the Enlightenment: Druid II Theme, they don’t really think about the game but about the Fairlight Intro. (By the way, I think it’s incredibly ironic that Tony Krvaric, alias Strider, one of the Fairlight Founders is the Chairman of the Republic Party in San Diego…)

In the past decade and a half, piracy expanded from software to music (thanks to MP3) and eventually movies and TV shows (Thanks to DivX). I’m not going to recite the entire history from Napster to the Pirate Bay here, I’m just going to express my stance on this. First off, I am negatively affected by some of the restrictions imposed by the industry. I moved from Europe to the United States and realized that I can’t play any of my DVDs because they are Region 2. Also, my Xbox Live count does not allow the change of my billing country, which meant that I had to create a new Gamertag, lose all my achievements, lose my Mass Effect 1 Savegame (which had a Level 60 character and all the right decisions) and lose access to the XBLA Games I bought unless I log in with that Gamertag. On the other hand, my Steam account worked without a hitch because Steam gets their business right while Microsoft doesn’t care about their customers and is too weak to negotiate world wide deals.

Here in the USA, TV is ridiculously expensive. I come from Germany where we think that the government-imposed mandatory Pay-TV (GEZ) is expensive (and kills any PayTV competition), but compared to TV over here it’s dirt cheap. On the other hand, we do have Netflix and Hulu Plus here, and a few Music streaming services which gives me access to a whole range of content, legally. I can not get everything though. Certain shows are only available on TV (pretty much anything HBO), I’m cut off many sports events like the German Soccer Bundesliga (some TV Channels offer select games and repeats, but a live Conference doesn’t seem to be available). I can not buy certain music Albums because the bands are only popular in their home country and haven’t set up international distribution.

In short: Between my wallet and something I’d like to pay for, there are sometimes certain walls. The Oatmeal has made a great comic that illustrates these walls better than I ever could and it concludes in the same way the thought process concludes for many people, but it’s not a thought process I agree with. Basically it boils down to “If I can’t watch it legally, I’ll pirate it”.

I do not think that pirating is the right solution. First of all, you are not entitled to anything. Somewhere, there is the belief that there is a right to access to copyrighted material. There is not. There is a company who paid money and owns the right, and they are telling you to fuck off. They don’t want to take your money.

Second, the author made a conscious choice selling their rights. I often hear how bands whose CDs are shipped with playback protection and rootkits are really the victims, how the evil major music companies are not paying them much money and how they rely on the publicity made by live concerts and exposure, and how piracy really benefits them. I am not disagreeing that exposure helps bands because Merchandise and Concert Tickets are their primary source of income. However, they also made a choice. They went to a major label, gave them the rights to their songs so that GEMA and RIAA now own them. In exchange, they benefitted from the marketing and sales power of those labels. It’s a mutual relationship. It’s ridiculously hard for bands to gain exposure unless they are already successful (Radiohead and NIN successfully sell Albums directly now) or become viral on the internet (OK GO’s treadmill video).

In making this choice however, the creators of a work submitted themselves to the terms of condition of the label. Same for TV Shows. I really do not think that someone put a gun to George R. R. Martin’s head and forced him to sell his rights to HBO. I’m pretty sure he could have sold them to someone else, or have kept them. But he sold the rights to HBO, and if HBO makes the choice to exclude me as a customer, that’s in the end Mr. Martin’s decision.

Third, it hinders exposure for other shows and bands that are trying to be customer friendly. Every time you start a conversation about Game of Thrones in your workplace, HBO’s marketing wins. On the other hand, every other show loses. There is only so much time in the day and every moment exists only once. The time you spend watching and discussing Game of Thrones is a moment not spent helping The Crew getting more exposure. It’s extremely hard to create a TV show or Movie. Over the past few years, we have seen tremendous progress in alternative/indie development thanks to video streaming, MySpace, Steam and other distribution channels. But the thing that really matters is exposure.

Fourth, it helps fueling things like SOPA. Child Porn, Terrorism, Nazi Propaganda and Piracy are the cornerstones of every election. The internet is evil, it needs to be controlled and censored. How dare you to protest against SOPA, you child molesting Nazi Terrorist? This isn’t limited to one country, in Germany it’s people like Ursula von der Leyen and Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg who brand people fighting for their rights as child molesters. It’s good to see that the SOPA protests worked for now, but don’t believe that that’s the last we’ve heard of it (ACTA goes into that same area). You have to take away their arguments. If the companies are losing money because they fail to sell to the market, it’s their fault. If they can blame pirates, it’s our loss.

Boycott is the only proper way, but it’s hard. Many kids start smoking in school because they want to belong to a group. They wear certain clothes because they want to belong to a group. The desire to belong never really goes away. If everyone in the office talks about a show, we don’t want to be excluded. And let’s face it, some shows and movies are genuinely fantastic.

Sometimes, getting in touch with a company helps. I’m a fan of JBO, a band that’s really only somewhat popular in Germany. When they released their 2009 album I don’t like Metal – I love it, it was not on either iTunes or Amazon MP3. I asked their record company – Megapress – and initially they could only offer to send me a CD from Germany. However, in the meantime they worked on it and now pretty much all of their Albums are on both iTunes and Amazon MP3. A small victory.

At the end of the day, I don’t care what you do as long as you stop being hypocrites about it. Piracy is not a fight for freedom, it’s a way to acquire something we want that the company doesn’t want to sell to you. If we were concerned about freedom, we would ignore the product and support products that treat us as customers, not just as cash sources. You buy the BluRay, you accept sitting through 30 minutes of mandatory trailers before the menus and not being able to watch the movie if you move to another continent. If you don’t agree, then don’t buy the product.

But we then also realize that those products often aren’t as good. AAA games, prime time TV shows, blockbuster movies cost money. A ton of it. Crowdsourcing like Kickstarter helps for smaller/indie games, but I doubt you could fund a triple-A MMORPG with it. Someone has to go in and gamble a million or two on it, with a very real risk of losing it because people rather spend their time with pirated products. We look at successes by Double Fine’s Adventure, Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog or Radiohead’s In Rainbows and forget that these are anomalies. Those products are successful because they already feed of an existing fan base. The reality is that most indie productions are having trouble securing even relatively modest amounts of money and even if they manage to make something, they may not get too many customers.

Movement is happing however. We are seeing tremendous changes already, and now that Netflix and Amazon decided to take up content production we might finally see some money behind things we consider ideals. Following Tim Schafers footsteps, Obsidian is considering a similar move, and Wasteland 2 was mentioned as well. Machinae Supremacy is successful with a hybrid internet/record label approach, and I already mentioned OK GO. I believe that at least for PC Video Games, we’re really in the middle of a revolution where us Gamers become the shareholders. We want another graphic adventure that combines everything we loved about Lucas Arts adventures? We want a good FPS game (after all, the last really FPSes were Painkiller, Unreal Tournament 3 and the Serious Sam series)? How about a shooter that combines everything we love about CAVE’s bullet hell games with some amazing scenario (like Jamestown)?

Piracy hinders that movement because it gives too much exposure and benefit to the companies we oppose. Freedom and Piracy seem related, but are different concepts. Personally, I believe it’s extremely important to make conscious decisions. Read the Terms you accept, realize that companies don’t want to sell but rather rent a product, on their terms. Accept that you may not be able to get everything you want. Freedom is the ability to say no and walk away to one of the alternatives. Piracy is the inability to say no and unwillingness to change the status quo. Having said that, I also cannot deny that iTunes Music Store and other were founded on losses made through piracy. Who knows if record companies really would’ve agreed to this if it weren’t for Napster?

Don’t stop fighting. There are attempts to prevent completion from emerging and to weaken our customers rights. Cable Companies are actively fighting for their position, which is why it’s important for Boxee to fight against them. GoDaddy tried to use SOPA for competitive advantage because they would’ve been exempt for it. RIAA/MPAA tried to get Spyware onto every PC, and Sony BMG outright shipped a Rootkit.

At the end, it’s all about a) making sure we keep the freedom of choice and oppose any attempt to take that freedom away and b) using that freedom to supports the things we agree with and deny attention to the things we don’t agree with.

Or at the very least, stop whining when companies you support and empower in this way screw you over even more.