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A Pirate’s Life: Online Piracy Is Not Going Away

All it takes is a few clicks and a couple of seconds to have the internet’s wealth of information at your fingertips. With a couple more clicks, you can download it to your hard drive and take it with you wherever you go.

Pirates didn’t disappear, they just changed vessels. From a carrack to a couch, illegal downloading has gone on since the inception of the World Wide Web.

An estimated 10 percent of U.S. internet users engage in some form of online piracy… But is it wrong? Can it ever justified?

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I’m sure that most of us can agree that stealing is intrinsically wrong. My question: Is online piracy stealing? It’s easy to say no when there’s no physical gain from downloading data.

Copyright infringement has often been equated to theft by producers and distributors of entertainment media from the moment it became a billion dollar business. However, theft is defined as depriving someone of property, so how does copying digital bits of data deprive anyone of their property? Technically, it doesn’t.

Stealing and copying may both be wrong (an argument for another day), but equating one to another is not a reasonable stance. You cannot lose what you never possessed.

Now, the objection to this is that the creator is being deprived their intellectual property or, more importantly, compensation from the fruits of their labor.

The concept of intellectual property is contrary to freedom of thought. All intellectual work is basically an interpretation of the thoughts or ideas offered to us by society, regardless of how personal the interpretation is.

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Let’s say there’s a patent on some idea. Well, that basically means that you can’t have the same idea, even if it’s the result of an original and sincere thought process. And that’s just for the patents.

For trade secrets and copyright, you have freedom of speech: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) Of course, it’s all a matter of interpretation.

But don’t the fruits of our labor belong to us? If I write a book, shouldn’t I stand to gain something from the time that I put into it?

Owners of “intellectual property,” set prices to optimize returns. By intentionally pricing them high, it excludes those who would pay, or could only afford to pay, less. This means that if you value The Avengers DVD at $3, and they demand $15, you simply aren’t a customer. By downloading it, how are you depriving them of income they would’ve never received?

What if I have an eidetic (photographic) memory? Is it copyright infringement to re-play my memory of the song or movie? You could say that the IP rights holder is deprived every time I do. So, perhaps we need a system to pay royalties on our memories.

Let’s not get caught up in putting a price on art.

In our capitalist society, it’s easy to justify online piracy as immoral. However, under a more utilitarian rule, where happiness is attempted to be distributed even, it’s not. It’s hard to call downloading a movie from a major film company that is massively wealthy as unethical as the theft of a homeless man’s only pair of shoes.

The amount of self-interest and motive we place on personal profit is repugnant. And these overwhelmingly rich entertainers, producers, and distributors surrounded by the poor are products of it (yet another rant for another day).

Piracy is not going away. There will always be people copying or sharing music, movies, and books. A real artist should just make art and be grateful that people want to experience their creations. If you were a musician, it might feel bad to have your songs downloaded illegally, but if they were good, imagine how many more people would actually support you by coming to see you in concert.

Cory Doctorow, a successful San Francisco writer, has a very strong opinion on this matter. Not coincidentally, all his books are available for free download and he still makes plenty of money. Doctorow likes to quote Tim O’Reilly, a financially successful publisher who once said:

“Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.”


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There are three major lines of defense: personality-based, utilitarianism and Lockean justifications.

  • Personality-based theorists argue that our talents and traits belong to us. As Hegel would put it, for human will to take form, to settle in the world, there has to be tangible or intangible objects to which it can attach itself, basically physical and intellectual property. Personality theorists argue that our talents, our abilities belong to us, thus what our talent produces, be it a chair or an idea, is rightfully ours and will be the property through which our personality will take form.
  • Utilitarianism takes a much more practical approach: if there is no such thing as intellectual property, then there is no incentive to create. Moreover, if those who create ideas or works of art or information have some rights on their creation, they can capitalize on this property and since money is power, it empowers them to create yet more intellectual work.
  • The Lockean justification is basically thoughts on physical property applied to intellectual property. It argues that the fruit of our labor belongs to us, because the object that resulted of the labor cannot be distinguished from the labor itself, the object and the labor are the same thing. It’s a less spiritual version of the personality-based justification.



  • The non-rivalrous nature of information or ideas (they are not consumed by their use) makes it unjustifiable to restrict access to it by means of intellectual property. It’s the argument used by the creator of Miecraft who seems to be an advocate of piracy.
  • The notion of intellectual property is contrary to freedom of thought and speech, which are constitutional rights in most developed countries.
  • The final critique, based on the social nature of information. According to this argument, all intellectual work is but a recycling, an interpretation of the culture offered to the individual by society, however personal this interpretation is. Thus, it’s fair to say that all intellectual work belongs to everyone and intellectual property should not be as exclusive as it often is.


Piracy by the numbers:


– 245,204,319 U.S. citizens with connection to internet. (2011 United States Internet Usage Report)

– 25,000,000 “estimated” number of The Pirate Bay users, one of the largest file-sharing websites in the world. (Variety, April 17, 2009)

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