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Glare, Grouchy

[Rant] Copyright

As this has been getting discussed in the discussion groups of both Katherine Kerr and Megan Lindholm (Robin Hobb) over the past few weeks, it's been on my mind lately. Today I got a note on a game I help keep running that a couple users were using one of the communication venues in the game to discuss how best to trade around cracked games and whatnot.


There are some zealots, I admit, who really do believe that authors should release books for free and copyright shouldn't exist at all, or that all software should be free. Putting aside the question of 'if it's free, you are unlikely to make money on it, and there's no incentive to actually work on it as opposed to getting a different job,' there are other considerations.

Without copyright, for instance, someone could take a book and decide they want to publish their own version of it. They alter it -- cutting scenes, and adding a few they think are better -- and release their own revised edition with the same byline. The author's message is no longer there, and you no longer have any guarantee that you're getting the actual /book/ and not just someone's mutant edited copy.

Add to that the fact that our copyright laws were specifically altered some time ago to adhere to the Berne Convention guidelines, so that our copyright would be enforced and upheld by other countries who are signatories to it.

Really, what it boils down to, I think, is that the majority of people who pirate stuff do it because it's simple (just download something!) and it's free (and people are all about the free stuff). And all the arguments about how it 'doesn't hurt anyone' or how it 'only hurts the publishers' are largely just justifications. And 'I wouldn't have bought it anyway' doesn't really count for anything. If you wouldn't have bought it anyway, that's no excuse for theft. Hey, I wouldn't have bought that DVD player, but that makes it okay to steal it! Bzzt.

If you can convince yourself you're taking a Moral Stand against Big Business or whatever, you don't have to think about the fact that you are stealing from the people who wrote that game you're enjoying so much, that piece of software you use every day, composed and performed those songs you just downloaded in MP3, or wrote that book you just downloaded in eBook format.

The immaturity shows in a number of ways in the pirate community. Witness people who cheerfully accept acclaim and praise for making pirated goods available; the eBook scanners who cheerily accept the acclaim and thanks of the various pirates, acting as if the books were their own work. Hell, think about our Russian hacker friends who have an entire site devoted to Trillian as if it were their work, when all they're doing is distributing pirated copies of Trillian Pro and plugins.

I'm halfway tempted to talk to some of the authors, game developers and so on who I know, and ask them each to write a short essay on copyright and piracy, and collect them into a freely-available eBook to distribute on the net...


In an attempt to present a middle of the road arguement, I would like to start by saying that you are absolutely correct. There is no justification for a 'moral stand against big business' involved in these activities. It's stealing. Any attempt to pretty it up doesn't make it any better.

That being said, speaking as a former thief, I think that the problem is further under the surface. Ownership is a tricky thing to start with. Ignoring all of the international data/music/program thieves out there for a moment, let's look at the issue just in the US.

The main problem with capitalism is that it divides people into the 'have's and the 'have not's. And the culture of the US is built so strongly on becoming a 'have' that it has allowed a basic decline in social responsibility. Look at the state of public restrooms 50 or 60 years ago versus how they are now for an example.

So you have generations emerging with less and less of a sense of what is right and wrong. With data transfer becoming so fast and inexpensive, this facilitates data sharing at a level no one could have dreamed of. Rather than going with the flow and changing to meet the needs of the market, most industries attempted to do business the same way that they had been doing. When that failed, they brought the law into it. This gave the pirates a chance to achieve martyrdom. This promoted more piracy from the 'have not's who now had a rallying cry of fighting against the jerks in Big Business. And perhaps if they had only struck against industries that were causing problems, they might have been able to justify it a little better. But they hurt small companies liek Cerulean, too. And they are wrong because of it.

HOWEVER...this decline in morality affects both sides. One of the reasons for the boom in data piracy is because of the way that the big businesses behave. Instead of working to educate people on why it's wrong, they look at the bottom line. The lose of profit means they feel they need to cut costs which means more jobs lost overseas where the workforce is less expensive. That means more unemployment and more 'have not's. It's a vicious cycle.

This is not a problem that can be addressed from the sort of moral high ground you have taken. I understand why you feel the way you do. And you are not wrong to feel that way. But your approach will turn more people off of your point than draw them to it. Calling an immature person immature only results in them getting huffy and insulted and then doing something REALLY immature.

I may be missing what you're driving at, but I don't think that short essays are going to reach your target audience. They'll look at it as another attempt to subvert them from their 'righteous cause' or just ignore it altogether. It will likely only be read by the folks who already agree with you.

Action needs to be taken on a bigger level. First of all, the industries need to either lower prices a bit or show the justification for what they charge. I'm not saying that every company overcharges for their products, but there are some who price gouge. They also need to report honestly on the benefits and detriments of data piracy rather than doing what the US Government has done for years and only reporting the worst case scenarios about things they feel should be illegal.

As an example, while Metallica and some other artists are against mp3s, they aren't losing a whole lot of money because a majority of the price of a CD goes to the record company. When you take away the few cents that the CD, jewel case, printing and packaging cost, you've still got an average of $13 unaccounted for. Additionally, mp3 distribution helps generate interest in a band which leads to a bigger fan base forming more quickly and more people attending their concerts.

In addition to the industry actions, the government needs to take a better stand than they do no. Prosecuting high school students for downloading a few songs just makes you look like an asshole. But taking a firmer stand against the folks who do REAL harm helps everyone. This needs to be approached carefully though, and would be best if it started with educating first time offenders on why what they did is harmful.
I agree on the general decline in morality and a sense of right and wrong. However, your argument that mp3 piracy is a good thing...? No. I was reading an interesting story about how many smaller bands only exist anymore as a result of selling merchandising (i.e. which can't be pirated so easily, like t-shirts and suchnot).

MP3s and suchnot can help raise interest. But as I said in Kit's discussion group, and will repeat here, it MUST BE THE CHOICE OF THE ARTIST TO DO THAT. If an artist wants to release free MP3s, more power to them! However, saying 'well, I'm mostly hurting the publisher, and it gives the band name recognition' is nothing more than a rationalization. Period. Otherwise I could justify stealing your television because it hurts the Big, Evil Advertisers, and television's probably bad for you anyway.

Metallica may not be losing a lot of money on piracy. Big software companies may not be losing that much money on piracy, like Microsoft. But that doesn't make it right. Nor does it mean smaller companies don't lose a lot of money; I can think of a number of game companies -- including Monolith, where I used to work -- who have been slurped up by publishers and consumed as a result of needing to find better income due to piracy losses. And smaller bands, who aren't getting massive contracts and really rely on those royalty checks, they are absolutely harmed by piracy.

As for calling those who present pirated works with the pride a creator normally takes in them? What else can I call it? If someone cheerily pirates some RPG book into PDF format, sticks their name into the credits ('Electronic Edition by...') and sticks their pirate group's logo into one of the pages, and then presents it with as much pride as if they were the actual author? C'mon, Max, that /is/ immature. And it's insulting to the real creators, the people who spent months or years working on whatever just got pirated.
The issue there is that whether you would have bought it or not, you're still profiting in some manner at the expense of another. It's still theft and no justification changes that, even 'well, I wouldn't have bought it anyway'. As long as people accept that it's theft, then there's no more arguement on that issue, just on what to do about it.
My point is that it's presented as a justification, and it's a somewhat fragile one. It's easy to make that claim, but as you note, there's no way for certain to know that no, you wouldn't have bought it. And I really, really doubt that everyone who goes "well, I wouldn't have bought it, so it's not a theft" is telling the truth.

Short form being that 'I wouldn't have bought it anyway' is not a valid justification. It may mean that there's less financial loss, but it doesn't make it right. Morally, or legally. It does not /justify/ it, it makes an /excuse/. If something isn't worth the money to me, I don't buy it; I don't suddenly get the moral right to pirate it.

Which mostly seem to be points you acknowledge. I was simply trying to demonstrate the failure of logic in 'I wouldn't have bought it, so that makes it okay to steal it.'
Man, talk about a touchy subject. I've got a whole slew of opinions on this, as an economist, as a technologist, and as a consumer.

As an economist, digital 'property' is in that magical place where marginal cost = 0 (or close enough that the lim MC -> 0). Having said that, free market theory states that a company should ideally sell a product were MC = MR (where marginal cost equals marginal revenue). That would mean that the price for any digital good should be 0. (Obviously, over-simplified. You adjust for R&D costs, advertising, etc.)

Take a look at 95% of the software out there. How many are charging appropriate to what the free market theory tells us that they should be charging? Most of them are price-gouging.

As a technologist, I think wholesale banning of technology, of any sort, is a bad idea. I think when any of the *AA organizations lobby for new laws against new technology, it is a bad idea. I think that industries need to adapt their distribution methods rather than using the club of law to beat-down new technology.

As a consumer, I look at China. One of the most rampant pirating centers in the world. What do movie-makers in China do? They have reached a point where they sell their legit DVDs at a reasonable price (see above re: MC=MR), which is only mariginally higher than pirated versions (something close to 1-3 yuan difference, which equals to less than 50 cents). Once that was done, most people prefer to pay the marginal cost in order to have an legit version/copy.

My thoughts on this were that digital goods are overpriced. Thieves will always exist. By overpricing, consumers (who, for our purposes, is say between 14-25) are being converted into thieves. Adjust the pricing to reasonable levels and most thieves will convert back to being consumers.

I look at MusicMatch and iTunes as examples. Anecdotally, I know that most of my formerly pirating friends prefer to buy them at a reasonable 99 cents per song to downloading. I look to the Chinese DVD market as an example of when distribution is lowered to match the equilibrium price.

This is a generalized comment. ;) Please don't think this necessarily applies to the makers of Trillian. :) I wouldn't know - I haven't studied your company.
As far as solutions go, I remember hearing somewhere about an alternative way to sell things. I don't remember if it was actually used, or if it was just suggested, but it was interesting.

This was designed for selling music CDs: The artist would release two or three tracks from the album, for free, on their website, and would post a target. Anyone could donate as much or as little as they wanted towards that target. Once the target amount was reached, the artist would release the entire CD for free. Possibly, it could be broken down so that an extra track is available every 15% received, or something like that.

Computer games could conceivably be sold the same way. The company develops the entire game, then releases the first third of it for free. They set a target goal based on how much it cost to develop, including salaries, facility costs, and so on, as well as a reasonable amount of profit. Then they release more of they game as they get donations, eventually having the whole thing. They'd have to develop with that in mind, and figure out a good way to release updated versions in the store, as well as more problems that I haven't thought of yet... but it might work well, especially for big, popular, highly-expected games. By not releasing the full thing, there's no chance of it being cracked, since there's nothing to crack - everything is either freely available for download (and probably in stores for a nominal fee - $5 to $10), or not available anywhere outside the company. It would increase the development costs, and distribution costs if they replace the CD's being physically sold after X percentage has been received (maybe 50% and 100%), but those can be factored into the target number.
People would hate it.

"I put $50 towards that album, and they never reached the target, so I never got a single other track! What a fucking rip-off, man!"

C'mon, we live in a world where the author of Something Positive has people griping that they're not getting enough for /donations/... or even more often, people griping that they /wouldn't/ be getting enough for their donations if they /had/ donated.
First of all, I have no problem downloading and using a pirated software program. None whatsoever, unless the publisher specifically releases a demo version that reflects significantly the functuality of the program.

Why? Because the software publishers have made it so that stores can refuse any return, period. I can go out tonight, buy a car, go drive it around for two days racking up miles and still legally return it by the third day -- I can't with a software program. And I've been burned so many times now that I don't give a rip anymore.

I take the same view with music and movies; I can't see if the music or the movie fits my tastes or is worth the money.

Once I have tried out the program, I buy those that I find entertaining or useful, and trash those I don't. I do the same with music and movies.

But let's try one of the big things right now -- do you consider it illegal or even morally wrong to download a MP3 or AVI version of a CD or DVD you already own? The RIAA thinks it is. I've about 3,000 books; many of which I've downloaded the pirated electronic eBook version because picking up the legal version would run me twice the price of the original book. Am I violating the moral concept?

If I download PDF versions of my D&D or Shadowrun books, is this wrong?

The stupidity of the whole thing is that it is the companies themselves that fuel the piracy. There's no reason for every book printed from today forward to have a code inside to allow an electronic version download. There's no reason why Sony can't have a scanner that checks to see if the data checksums from a music CD matches the one in the user's drive and then allows a download of the MP3's. There's no rational reason for software, music and videos to be non-returnable.

I'll worry about my moral stance when companies start paying attention to what customers want as well as taking reasonable customer service steps that EVERY other form of media and product is REQUIRED TO DO BY LAW.

I can understand why you're frustrated for Trillian - you've an excellent free version for people to try it out. But I'm not about to worry about Robin Hobb's feelings that I have a digital version of her book on my PDA and a hardback on my bookshelf. The RIAA and the Kinks can both kiss my hinny before I'll worry about the fact I have not encoded my own MP3's of the disks in the rack. And the software makers can go cry on someone else's shoulder that I've tried before I've bought their software.

And I think I'm far, far, far from the minority in this. Fair use has always been a concept in copyright law, as well as a limitation as to how long it is before something becomes public domain. Media publishers have destroyed these concepts through their crying to Congress to save them. They made their own bed, let them stew. Or I should say, let them sue, since that's their answer to handling these issues.
If you honestly think that try-before-you-buy, or fair use copy of things you own are the majority of piracy, you are sorely, sadly mistaken. You /are/ the minory. The /vast majority/ of software piracy is not people going and 'trying before you buy,' but outright pirates. The /vast majority/ of people downloading DVDs from the internet are not going to go buy the DVD afterwards; they'll just burn it on their DVD burner. The /vast majority/ of people who download a pirated game (and c'mon, games almost /always/ have freely downloadable demos on the game developer's site) are not going to go buy it.

People who try-before-you-buy are not the problem. They are also not the majority. Sure, some people will justify it as 'well, I'll buy it if I like it,' but then they realize, well, this is a $50 program, and there are other things I'd like to spend the money on right now, and I already /have/ it on the drive...

From what I've seen, Robin's complaint is not that people download a PDF of her book after buying it. It's that they download the PDF of her book without buying it at all. And then give that PDF to friends. (And Kit's complaint is actually a different one, based on derivative works.)

Movies... how can you test to see if a movie is to your taste before you go to see it? That's what reviews are for. I've never understood the people who download the pirated-from-theaters copies of a film to watch first to 'see if the film is worth going to see,' because every single one of them I have encountered goes, 'nah, I'm not going to go to the theater, I already saw that film when I downloaded it.' Test-driving software is one thing, test-driving movies before a theater is another.

As for purchasing a DVD, that's what rentals are for, to my mind. I'm gonna watch the movie one way or another. If I really like it, I buy it. If I think it was fun but not worth owning, eh, at least I watched it.

If you want people to stop going 'piracy sucks' and painting fair-use or try-before-you-buy folks with the same brush, then stop defending the other pirates as well. Media companies and lawmakers may not understand the difference, but at present they have no incentive to understand the difference. They see people stealing -- and I don't care what you want to say to justify it, it's still theft -- and then they see the fair-use crowd and try-before-you-buy crowd defending them as standing up to the man. Why should they see the groups as two instead of one?

People like to try and make piracy a moral stand. "I'm doing it because it's overpriced!" "It doesn't really hurt anyone!" "Information wants to be free!" "It's not really theft since I'm only taking information!" It's just rationalizations.

All throughout history, people rationalize things to get their way. From little things, like, "Well, maybe SUVs pollute, but mine is only ONE, so it's not really a big problem," all the way up to thin justifications to invade countries, take other people's land, and so on. Because as long as you can feel morally justified, it alleviates the guilt.

Is the system flawed? Yeah. The RIAA are idiots. The MPAA overreacts. But are they being stolen from? Absolutely. Are people being hurt by it? Just ask the smaller publishers, smaller distributors, smaller developers who have been hard-hit enough by piracy losses to go out of business, or been forced to sell themselves to the very same big 'evil' corporations the pirates object to.

Sure, there are flaws in the system. It doesn't, however, change the fact that it's still theft. And it's damned hard for the software pirates who claim to want to reform the system to take any sort of moral high ground in the courts when they are, in essence, still thieves.

And that's what bothers me the most. The hypocrisy. The people who claim, 'it doesn't hurt anyone.' The people who claim, 'the publishers are evil, so I'm in the right.' All those are just flimsy justifications to make themselves feel better. But I'll bet you that with these same advocates, if someone took their work, hacked it apart, and then spread it around while taking credit for it -- as pirates often do -- then the advocate would be singing a different tune soon enough about 'piracy hurts no one.'
First thought: Once the pirates had skimmed the e-book, nobody would distribute it anymore. It would be an ongoing distribution failure; you'd have to have people constantly re-releasing the ebook.

Second thought: I buy more games, books, and music because of pirated software/books/music. I get a chance to try it out, to hear what it sounds like, to skim a few chapters... and that makes me buy it. If publishers would actually release a test version anymore, I have a feeling piracy would decrease. If there were people who would play more than the top 40 music on the radio, I have a feeling music piracy would decrease. As for books, if there were chapters released for reading online, piracy would decrease there, too.

Yes, I've been known to use pirated software before. But if I use it for more than one or two test runs, I buy the sucker, because I obviously need it for something... and most pirated software isn't all that well-pirated to begin with. The exception is stuff that I know is good quality (i.e. anything released by Maxis, anything released by Trillian, most necessary MS products). Games, I'd rather try before I buy, for certain.

Same applies to music. If I can't hear it, I'm not going to get it. This is why we took almost all the music we sell at the store and MP3'd it; we can put it all on one MP3 player or one computer and play it for the customers on demand. Every so often, we'll dump one song out on the net for people to hear, and almost every single time, we get orders for the CD when people want more. And there are online success stories galore for this, if you look for 'em. I mean, c'mon... who hasn't listened to the 30-second blips of music on some online site to see if they like the sound of an album? It works, and it works well.

Books are a little more tricky subject, as someone who isn't appreciative of the material will likely not lay out money for the book. But on the other hand, thousands of people sit in Barnes and Noble and practically read the entirety of books there, and never spend a penny on 'em. I know college students who will go into a Barnes & Noble with their homework, and who will literally spend time in there doing their homework with the books on sale, rather than go to a library. If someone's not going to spend money on a book, they simply won't.

There's another problem; secondary sales. Keep in mind that virtually everything - software, books, music - is resold used somewhere or other. The publishers never get anything from a secondary sale, but the owner can legitimately say they owned the item at one time. So Joe buys a CD and MP3's the contents. He sells it to Jane for a penny, and she MP3's the contents, and sells it to Bob for a penny... repeat as desired. Who can prove that it's not legitimate? I mean, even Amazon sells cheap used books/software/music...

So there's a lot of problems facing all these industries. Personally, I think that if there's a freeware or test version of an item on the market, it will sell the paid version a heckuva lot better than not having a freeware version.
The problem is not, as I said, the try-as-you-buy folks. And secondary sales have little to do with people who are downloading DVD .ISOs off of BitTorrent, or cracked versions of videogames.

I hear this 'if there were only free versions, piracy would stop or be reduced.'


Every single game I worked on while I was in the games industry had a free demo version released online, and also on CDs with game magazines, and so on. And how many of those games were pirated? All of them.

There are plenty of bands who /do/ release MP3s from their albums on their websites. And while there are some folks who listen and decide, 'hey, I like that' and buy the CD, others go and find the rest of the tracks off of Gnutella or eDonkey or whatever.

Obviously, a free trial demo does not stop the actual pirates. It stops the try-before-you-buy folks, but if they're /really/ "try before you buy" folks, then they wouldn't keep the pirated tracks/game/software/whatever around /anyway/ if they didn't like it. They're not the problem, and free trial demos don't stop the ones who are.
Further examples:

Microsoft Office. Has a 30 day free trial. Is it pirated by folks anyway? Yes.

Corel Painter. Has a 15 day free trial. Is it pirated by folks anyway? Yes.

Maya. Has a fully-functional 'personal learning edition,' which very generously never expires and does nearly everything the full one does, but puts a 'Maya' watermark on all of your finished work. Is it pirated by folks anyway? Yes.

Half-Life 2. Has a free demo version out there for download. Is it pirated by folks anyway? Yes.

Trillian. Has a free 'Basic' version out there, and a free 15-day trial if you want to use Pro. Is it pirated anyway? Yes.

I really, really remain skeptical that offering trial versions cuts into the actual piracy in any significant way. If you have numbers or anything to back this up, I would honestly love to see them. Prove me wrong! But right now, I look at all those examples, and I remain skeptical.