Piracy: How an Illegal Act May Be an Underdog

Most everyone can agree that pirating someone else’s work is not okay. But for a select few, they say it’s a human right.

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Pirating. The word itself strikes fear into the hearts of top music corporations and local librarians alike. When digital piracy was still a newer, scarier proposition, the act was widely looked down upon as an illegal and unjust act. However, in the modern age, piracy has seemed to do a 180 and become far more common and almost accepted. Today, we are going to look at piracy, its effects in today’s age, and why it might be a force for good.

Piracy is defined by Oxford Languages as the “unauthorized use or reproduction of another’s work”. To see its origins, we need to go back to the beginning of copyright. Copyright law was first established in Britain in 1710. It was introduced in the United States in 1790, shortly after our country’s founding. At the time, it covered only books and maps for 14 years after their registration. Like most things written back then, they were unaware that it would spiral out of control.

In theory, it is a useful and practical idea. Being able to register one’s work with the government to keep it safe from thieves is a great tool, but when corporations take the reins, things can get out of hand quickly. There is also a question as to what exactly counts as piracy and what does not. After all, Napster users did not care where the music came from or who uploaded it. A moral question was raised. It was clear that what Napster was doing was piracy, but the majority of users were not uploading anything, only listening. Should merely listening to music be a crime, or should the real criminals be the ones who shared it in the first place? There is no better example than the infamous Metallica vs. Napster, Inc.

Napster was a famous pirating website, created in 1999 and shut down in 2001. Here, file sharing and downloading copyrighted material, mostly music, was commonplace. At first, authorities did little to shut down the site as it caused no real threat. That all came crashing down one day when a song was leaked onto Napster. It was a demo for one of the new songs that popular metal band Metallica was releasing—Napster had heard the song before even its creators did.

Just previously, Napster had been hit with a lawsuit by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and they would not be let off this time. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich decided to go head-to-head with Napster, causing a long and grueling court battle. Although Metallica had won the case after much fighting and deliberation, it came at a cost. Metallica had gone from a symbol of “fighting the man” to a corporate entity. Little did they know that this would lead to the growth of piracy and have the reverse effect—acceptance over one of the globe’s most widespread crimes. Some online even believe that they should not have to pay so much for something that should be a human right—music.

On the other hand, Metallica’s point of view did not go unnoticed. Ulrich claimed that Napster did not seek the band’s permission before uploading their music, not once. Since the estimated value of lost revenue in the music industry because of pirating is staggering, Ulrich noted that Metallica’s claims were also rooted in the monetary aspect. An estimated $55 billion has been lost in the industry due to file sharing, home taping, and cut-and-dry music stealing. The debate rages on as to whether Metallica is in the right or the wrong. Despite everything, piracy lives on.

arsTechnica, an IT and technology company, found that 46% of all Americans have pirated some sort of copyrighted material before, and 70% of them are strictly within 18-29 years of age. The act has also shown to not be limited to just one group. In fact, statistics have shown that it has even been done fairly equally: men only pirated 2% more than women. Where is this coming from? How far back does it go?

Pirating goes back very far. Thomas Edison was known to have supposedly stolen patents from employees in his company, and Bonnie and Clyde were some of the most famous thieves out there. They had stolen money from banks, gas stations, and more. Interestingly enough, some people actually agreed with their stealing. At the time, the Great Depression hit the South particularly hard, so naturally, people saw banks as greedy corporate entities. By stealing their money, they echoed the same mindset about pirating that many have now—stealing from perceived greedy institutions and giving to others. Piracy is a great American tradition, but in the digital age, it has only become more untraceable and dangerous with the rise of computers and globalization.

The infamous “You Wouldn’t Download A Car” line from the 2004 anti-piracy ad has become somewhat of a joke to people as its ridiculous and over-the-top scare tactics have reflected a reality much different from ours. Compared to now, the 2004 internet was a different, more uncharted place where pirating sites were the norm. Statistics seem to support this, seeing that the average amount of visits to pirating websites have only grown over the years.

A key reason for the influx of piracy and its acceptance is the perceived greediness of corporations. While some want to get products for free and nothing else, some pirate with legitimate reasons and morals. For one, ZDNet reported that many do it because money is tight. Why go out and buy a $30-$60 game when one can pirate the exact same product for free? After all, many games’ prices are severely overpriced. LA Times quoted that an average game disc only costs around $27 to make and distribute. For a $60 game, the price is inflated by nearly 2½ times.

Another reason why some pirate is to stand up to corporate greed. In the television industry, cable can cost $60 to $100 per month, where one must endure commercials and are unable to pick what they wish to watch. As for companies such as Netflix and Hulu, the average per month is only $5 to $10. Netflix does not have commercials, and a commercial-free subscription for Hulu is easily obtainable.

In spite of top corporations’ best efforts and strict government regulation, piracy still is a looming threat to companies, record labels, and game developers. At the same time, it has basically become socially acceptable. Piracy should not be encouraged whatsoever. It is harmful for the products’ creators, and also illegal for anyone to do. However, things are not always as black and white. As the internet is increasingly seen as the last bastion of truly unregulated content, more users have turned to pirating as the easiest solution to corporate greed and overpriced, under-quality goods.