Feature : The trouble with pirates

We’re a small outfit here at GeekDeck. We don’t get asked to visit games studios or talk to famous people. We just write about what matters to us and that’s why we’re able to take on such a large, controversial topic as piracy. Thinking back only a few years ago, the term piracy was reserved for Captain Blue Beard and his motley crew who would go around plundering sea vessels, terrifying people with their swords and daggers and stealing treasure, lots and lots of treasure.

In the modern day version of pirates we have to make a few subtle changes which to be perfectly honest hardly alter the image at all. Captain Blue Beard is replaced by an obnoxious teenager who can hardly string a sentence together. The ocean is replaced by the vast landscape that is the Internet. Swords and daggers could be replaced by small perl scripts, and the treasure? Well that’s the least subtle change of all. You see the problem is, the treasure isn’t really even tangible treasure anymore. It’s more like a secret code, or information. Knowledge is power, who said that? In this age of information and digital media, the physical treasures have been largely replaced by an abstract collection of unos and zeros.

In my honest opinion, piracy is a necessary evil.

The big companies, in an effort to prevent piracy and increase their media presence, hold back or lock down their content. This makes it much harder to hear, see, or play the end product. Take the music industry for example; most bands will post a couple of new songs up on Myspace or maybe just 20 second samples on the their website, but that’s all. I personally will not part with £10 of my hard earned money until I know there is £10 worth of material that I like. This requires listening to the whole album, and unfortunately, piracy is the easiest way to do that.

I will admit that I once was an illegal downloader. Since giving up, my spending on CD’s has dropped considerably. There are 2 albums out currently that, despite searching for on the Internet, I cannot find a sufficient amount of audio to make the decision to buy the CD. So I’m simply not buying. In the past I would have simply downloaded it. If there were more ways to listen, I’d buy more. Take The Fratellis for example. They posted their debut album in its entirety to stream on their MySpace page. I listened, I liked, I bought. Simple!

I’m fully aware that it’s the actions of illegal downloaders that cause the big companies to shy away, but, if they don’t ‘give’, people will inevitably ‘take’. It’s a catch 22 situation and I therefore believe piracy is a necessary evil.


The problem is – and it’s fairly obvious if you think about it – a collection of binary data can easily be duplicated without harming the original or removing it from it’s currently place of residence. A £10,000 piece of software can sometimes be replicated in a few minutes if you have the knowledge, skill and inclination. Here’s where it gets a little sticky. The physical, or as near as you can get to it with digital media, tangible substance is gone. Why is this string of ones and zeros worth £10,000? Realistically it’s not worth anything other than the price of the media on which it is being stored, but here’s where publishers will stick in their oars.

Digital media takes time to produce. Whether it’s the latest action film, a copy of Photoshop or Tom Paxton’s latest album in mp3, each of these has required time and effort to produce. It’s the same in essence as buying a straw hat. You could go and pick up a bale of straw for next to nothing, but do you have the skill and tools to turn it into a straw hat? Of course if your definition of a straw hat is anything that sits on your head that’s made of straw, then strapping the bale of straw to your head would probably qualify as the aforementioned and obviously highly popular, straw hat.

Do you have the skills to reproduce a movie in it’s entirety, or code a Photoshop clone, or sing like Tom Paxton. The chances are, no and if you can do all three, then please write in to GeekDeck, we’re short of a singer/songwriter/coder/film director. I used to know someone who would occasionally copy a song or two. He was a musician and was of the mind that he was able to play and record a cover of the song, so essentially he could either make his own version or copy the original. Yes, you guessed it, he went with the easy route.

“I have learned to respect all and every type of work. Whether we’re talking about someone who knows how to bake cakes or someone who can turn rocks into beautiful jewellery, this person took the time to create something unique. Some of them can afford to give it away for a lower cost or even free; some people value their work more than others and feel that they should be compensated for it. If someone has decided that their work deserves financial compensation, it is up to me to either pay or not. But pirating it, even if “just to take a peek” violates the copyright’s owner’s decision of not giving it away for free. When you take something that doesn’t belong to you without the owner’s consent, that is called stealing. So is piracy!


Seriously though, the price has been set by the publisher because it represents what they believe is the value of the information behind the binary data. Take Photoshop for example, if it could only draw circles and fill them green and blue, you’d probably pay the equivalent of a fettered toenail for it. Now take into account the unimaginable vastness of digital canvas that Photoshop allows you to create, and you can see why it carries the price tag it does. The question is, are all prices realistic?

“Why is this string of ones and zeros worth £10,000? Realistically it’s not worth anything other than the price of the media on which it is being stored, but here’s where publishers will stick in their oars„

The answer to that question is really irrelevant, moreover we should be asking the question, Are we prepared to pay that price for that “information”. If the answer is yes, then the world continues in it’s merry cycle. We give our money away, the publisher gets richer and hopefully maintains the software, publishes more songs or films, and produces upgrades. However if that answer is no, something very interesting happens. Unlike the real world, where if you don’t have enough money to buy something you’re left with three choices, don’t buy it, steal it – usually associated with a lengthy time in a little box room if you get caught – or borrow money from someone else who can afford to buy it, with digital media, a secret hidden option appears. Attractive offer number 4. Pirate it.

Piracy is such an accepted method of retrieval of information that we don’t even call it stealing, yet in essence that is what it is. The problem with the definition of stealing is, we’re not actually physically taking something away from anyone. We are not traveling to the publishers home and prising their _sometimes_ hard earned cash from their fingers. We’re copying the information from another source. Some would argue that if the money hasn’t been given to the publisher, then we’re not stealing it when we copy the information.

“I have worked in the software industry for a while now and there are two things that I am rather confident about:

Software piracy has to harm publishers. The estimated 35% of unlicensed commercial software installed on computers worldwide has to result in some loss for companies that could otherwise invest into further improvement of their products.

Software piracy has to help publishers. It provides them with new users that would have never bought the software because they simply cannot afford it but who are nevertheless being educated to the platform. This is free advertising and leads to more sales later.

I would like to see software piracy being tackled from two new angles that very much differ from the current status quo.

First, I would like to see software publishers apply prices that are tailored to the income levels of each country. I would like to see software that is easier to install and doesn’t hamper the rightful user (who here still likes DRM?). There is a lot of room for innovation in how and why software is sold.

Finally, I would like to see governments pushing for prevention through education of users and promotion of free software alternatives rather than blind enforcement of the law.”


So why is it so accepted, and what consequence is there to the publishers and artists? In talking to people and receiving their comments, it’s quite clear that one of the main reasons that it’s so accepted is because it’s so damn easy to do. If publishers really wanted to stop us, they would, is often the reply that I hear. Whilst in theory there is some truth to this, as we have already discussed previously there is a whole convenience/security trade off which applies itself very nicely here. If you make your product X amount more difficult to use, because of DRM, or requiring a special playback medium, then the amount purchased can often drop accordingly. Whilst this is not always the case, cue the apple store, it can often be a limiting factor that leaves some publishers scrambling for sales which were once high above their competitors.

Whilst publishers can secure their media with technologies such as DRM, there are always those innovative people who find ways round it. You enforce it so that to play a piece of music requires it be decoded by a special DRM enabled player, job done? Wrong. At the end of the day, the data is still just signals and you can guarantee that some bright spark out there has an almost lossless way of getting that data back into a digital form once again for immediate pirate release. Plugging the line out into the line in of a laptop is a cheap layman’s way of getting a DRM stream back into the hands of the pirates. These are the real pirates, the ones who actually do carry an equivalent sword in the digital age.

As well as it being socially accepted that people download films/music/software free from the Internet, we also hit another factor in our quest for an answer to the “why” question. It’s so damn easy. Ignoring for the fact that many files downloaded from peer to peer and torrent sites are infested with viruses that makes Pig-Flu look like an amoeba, downloading files from the Internet is so easy, your gran can do it and in some cases, she does. Sometimes not directly, a grandkid could easily download “Granny’s hottest hits from 1945” from a torrent and slap them onto CD, but it doesn’t change the fact that however good the intention this is still piracy.

Cue the RIAA and it’s here that we bring in one of the most seemingly ruthless and hard hitting enforcers of the copyright laws. The RIAA are not shy about who they go after. Numerous articles have seen them suing 10 year olds, disabled people, and elderly users alike. It seems that the RIAA are trying to make a point about piracy by attacking the weak and feeble, yet the feelings that this raises in the various communities seem to suggest that people want to pirate media more, just to get back at the evil RIAA.

The thing is, technology, knowledge, as it ages, begins to reach a point where the information becomes common knowledge among others. Even information like creativity begins to be common place among us. Crazy to think that when I was in High-school, good information was so hard to come by you couldn’t even check out the encyclopedias, because if they were lost it would take too much effort and pain to get them back. Now we can acquire accurate information, piles of it even, and it comes in a easy to use format. So in terms of general piracy, this is the Farriers that are complaining that they are loosing business because a new technology has come along to destroy their lives. Or Kodak suing the digital camera makers because it hurts to see people copying pictures or sending them in email because they are loosing business.

In terms of copyrights I don’t think we should break the law. But you can’t create a cover all license and then start popping customers left and right because companies just can’t get with the times. Blue Ray? “Are you telling me I still have to buy something physical?”
Gees, catchup!


Whilst it’s motives are definitely questionable and there appear, on the surface at least, to be far more likely candidates for attacking than crippled old ladies, the RIAA has achieved one goal very successfully, and that is to bring some fear to the word piracy. Recently in Sweden the laws were changed to give enforcers the right to make ISPs divulge information about illegal file sharing users. Figures suggest that the day the law was introduced, file sharing across Sweden dropped 40%. That’s a lot of scared bits and bytes.

But is it really stealing? Is it really wrong? Large publishers are no more hurt by a single act of piracy than a rhino is, sleeping on a bed of peas. It really doesn’t care. The difficulty comes when the numbers are not one, but one million. Suddenly the whole concept is a lot more damaging. We’ve seen CD sales dropping to alarming rates, but is that due to piracy, or the increasing number of mp3 sales on places like the apple store? A recent article by the BBC, puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of the pirates, stating that the increase in sales of mp3s in no way makes up for the decrease in sales of CDs. Now, either people are just not buying music anymore, which to me seems incredibly unlikely, or the pirates have gained some serious territory.

Another side of the whole piracy argument is the try-before-you-buy mentality. It’s not often that you get to fully try out a piece of software or see a really genuine film trailer before you buy it. Demos, trailers and next weeks number 1 in the charts are there for one reason and one reason only, to sell copies of a product. They are engineered to your liking. They are tailored to look exactly as you want it, to do everything that you’d ever need, to give you an experience so amazing that you’d be quite happy just empty your bladder right there. Well maybe that’s a tad too far, but the fact of the matter is that in a lot of cases, the “demo version” of a product is just not an accurate representation of the finished article. Many people argue that they would be much more likely to purchase a product if they have either seen the real thing, or tried the real thing, without any limitations. In the piracy world, for films and music, users will often experience the entire product in a less polished way, often citing poor quality video etc, before they decide to buy it. Good for the consumer, bad for the publisher.

However if we view this on the flip side, it could actually turn out that this is the lesser of two evils. Imagine these two mentalities; Bob downloads a copy of Star Trek, directed by JJ Abrams, and absolutely hates it, he’s lost nothing, the publisher has lost a potential sale. Bob sees a new film out by JJ Abrams, downloads it, loves it and consequently buys it and the 3 sequels on DVD. Now imagine Alice. Alice buys the new Start Trek movie when it’s released on DVD as she was unable to get to the cinema to watch it, but she thought the trailer looked very enticing. She pays full price for it at a whopping £19.99. She watches it, and like Bob, hates it. Alice vows never to buy another JJ Abrams film again. She feels the trailer misrepresented the final product and feels she was stung by it. Not wanting to waste her money again, she sticks to her guns and misses out on buying 4 films that she actually could have enjoyed very much.

I believe the problems we are having recently, if they even are problems are entirely created by greed and companies wanting too much control.
Like most things in life this issue is very grey not black nor white. There are people doing bad things, making their living by selling other people’s material and not contributing anything back to the original creators or the greater artistic community. But most of what is getting attention today — the pirate bay, napster-like sharing is really really blown out of proportion.

Reasonable people will do reasonable things, and I believe most people are reasonable. I download tons of copyright material without authorization, but its not like I don’t contribute anything back. I purchase lots of music, concert tickets, etc, and in most cases if I am downloading it I would not have bought it anyway. Artificially restricting my exposure to music and art isn’t going to solve anything.

If I don’t make the effort to go all the way to the store and give over money for a digital good, and the publisher gets no money. If I don’t consume this good at all same thing happens. Can anyone really say that this tiny decision on my part makes a difference. No one notices one missed sale. Get over it. We have much bigger problems facing the world right now. Put some effort towards those.


In essence this mentality seems quite fair, and looking at the example above, the film publisher actually lost out more to the person who bought the DVD legitimately in the first place, as opposed to the person who pirated the first one, and bought it and subsequent others. Despite what people think, piracy does harm the publishers, be they music, film or software. People who say otherwise are at risk of being naive. On the other hand, it seems apparent that some piracy, or copying of media can actually have a benefit to both the end user and the publisher.

An interesting twist to this story is YouTube. Many people use content from YouTube to see if something is good enough to buy. You can find many many clips of films and TV shows on YouTube that haven’t necessarily been in trailers. After missing the first half of the third season of LOST, we were able to get the jist of bits we’d missed via YouTube. Is this piracy? It’s an interesting argument. On the one hand we haven’t broken any laws in obtaining the media. The blame actually falls squarely on YouTube’s shoulders for hosting the copyrighted content, but is it wrong to watch it? And what about accessing content in another country from yours without paying the appropriate import export taxes. Is this statement just silly?

One aspect which many people seem land in the hypocritical bucket is in that of distributing pirated media. Some people are perfectly happy with downloading content from the Internet, but are totally against selling this or distributing at practically zero cost to others. Deep down, the media has still been stolen in both cases, but it does certainly seem that the people distributing it are much further into the black side than those who just watch it. It’s been heard several times researching this article, “Watching it is OK, but selling it on?? No way dude” It’s big business and funnily enough the people who claim that reselling pirated material is wrong are sometimes the same people that buy DVDs off EBay in the full knowledge that they will probably be pirated versions. Does this bother them? Seemingly no. What seems to be worse is the multiple cases of people buying a hookie copy of X, believing it to be legitimate, contacting the appropriate authorities and hearing nothing back, despite clearly stating that the source appeared to be one of mass distribution. This sends a clear message to the consumer that piracy isn’t that big of a deal to them, the very authorities that have been put in place to stop it.

“the Open Source community provides an almost unbounded plethora of free alternatives to almost every application you could think of„

Moving on to our final topic and some of you may be feeling that something has been missed out. Open Source anyone? The topic has been left till last for good reason and the reason is that some open source advocates may not like what is going to be proposed, and we didn’t want people skipping out before they’d heard the ending, did we? It’s a common argument that in many cases piracy is unnecessary because there are plenty of other free alternatives to proprietary or commercial digital information. On the software side, the Open Source community provides an almost unbound plethora of free alternatives to almost every application you could think of. Most are perfect replacements for their commercial counterparts, some are less polished, and a few even further down the line are pretty poor.

On the Music side, we have sites like Jamendo, where people offer their musical talents for free, not just to listen to, but also to be used in certain works of your own, providing that certain restrictions apply. The film and video region is a little thin on free alternatives, and that’s largely because films take a lot more money to produce. People who want blockbuster films at free free prices are going to be out of luck, as these often take millions of pounds/dollars of investment. Though people commit voluntary donations to open source projects, the only one that springs to mind which is anywhere near the same ballpark is the $10,000,000 that Mark Shuttleworth put together for start the Ubuntu project.

The problem with Open Source alternatives and free media, is not so much that it’s in the minority, or not as polished as commercial offerings at all, or even that people are unaware of it, although that is sometimes the problem. The problem is at a very fundamental level, people don’t want GIMP, they want Photoshop, they don’t want Charles Fenollosa, they want Mike Oldfield, though there is abosolutely nothing wrong with the GIMP or Charles Fenollosa. Often, the reason people who want this digital media so bad and are willing to resort to piracy to get it is because they want the real thing. If you’re looking for a song by Tom Paxton – why the heck do I keep thinking of him, I’m definitely not a fan – you’re not going to find it at Jamendo. Though you may find something similar, it’s never going to match to the real thing. On the software side, people are used to using Microsoft Office, they don’t know Open Office, and are reluctant to try it if they _can_ get hold of a copy of Microsoft Office by other means. Though the free movement as a whole is very noble and is something that should be encouraged and supported, it’s never going to be a complete replacement for the proprietary market because it’s not always what people want. Many end users don’t want, or are not looking for functionality, they are looking for a specific product that they have seen and know will do a job, whether that be pleasing their auditory cortex, or editing their family snaps at DisneyLand.

It’s been a lengthy trip this time and if you’ve made it this far, and read all the contributors views then you are to be truly commended. Piracy is such a large issue, and the intent of this article was never meant to be an exploration of right and wrong, nor a definitive guide to life, the universe and piracy. It was intended to perhaps raise thoughts and ideas that you as a reader and a user may not have thought about before and encourage you to make the right choice, to be a noble member of this digital society. Truth be told, we’re probably not going to see the decrease in piracy that certain groups of lobbying for. Like it or not, piracy is an evil that many call necessary. Maybe the anti-piracy groups are not there to squash every instance of illegal downloading and distribution, maybe they’re really there to both keep it under control, and to do pirate marketing. Who would have thought it, the very organisations set up to prevent and control piracy may actually be doing a better job at promoting it. Who can say? It’s quite possible though, that for all the bad press the pirates get, they may actually be doing the industry a favour and that’s probably one of the scariest things of all.

    • Jared Spurbeck
    • May 14th, 2009

    What if the open-source project is the one people want? I personally like AbiWord much better than all other word procesors I’ve tried, and Ubuntu much better than all other OSes; and my brother will give up Firefox when you pry it from his cold, dead hands.

    I’m also a dedicated fan of JMB and Nerious, two groups / artists I found on Jamendo whose music I really adore. ^.^

    Finally, it may take millions of dollars to creat a film, but hey, the Linux kernel alone is worth billions … and the Blender Institute has already created two short films plus a commercial-quality video game solely off of donations and purchases! Pretty soon Open-Source will sweep the creative world, and I for one welcome our new … freedom.

    • Wow, this article really goes into some depth on the idea of piracy. Well I feel that piracy is really the result of (for the music industry) one technology that came before a lot of others and that is MP3.. MP3 changed the computer/music industry in a very large way when it became popular, and it was solely because of it’s small file size, good fidelity, and ease of hardware requirements of the codec. When MP3 came out, the music industry was oblivious of any thoughts of digital piracy, and was more worried about CD to tape, Tape to tape, or Radio to tape recordings sold off as genuine copies, and was then was referred to as bootlegging. The MP3 revolution jumped off the scale when Napster came about, and the music industry was blindsided by it to say the least, and had no way to combat this now largely known ‘piracy’.

      For the most part though I believe piracy of music in itself has became so large because of one major reason. People were (and still are) sick and tired of the prices of music cds @ around $15 to $20 a disk and god forbid it be a double disk set which are prone to jump in price around $35 to $40 for a consumer to buy just to find out there was only ONE good song throughout the entire set that they liked, and to top it all off, it was (and still is in most cases) the one song that was featured all over the radio that they could hear for free at the press of a radio dial.

      Unfortunately I believe what has extended the issue of piracy as a whole, is the exposure to the newer generations of teenagers from their parents who originally embraced piracy. Now there are teenagers that when with their parents at wal-mart for example (I do not know if there are wal-mart stores overseas so please place a general large department store accordingly) that want to buy a music cd or movie that they want, their parents who are feeling the money stretch of this day and age will just say “put that back, ill download it for you on the computer”. And so this vicious cycle continues but not only does it continue, it creates a stream of growing kids who accept the idea that piracy is completely ok, and that it is buying the music, movie, or software that is illegal. This also ties in with different classes of people if you think about it. For an example, lets say fictitious child Mary has a friend name Jen who loves to play on Photoshop that her dad uses (legitimately) because he is a graphic artist. Mary asks her mom or dad to buy said ‘Photoshop’ program so she can play around on it. Their parents see the pricetag of Photoshop and quickly say no to her, that she can use MSpaint. Mary then finds she can download the full Photoshop CS3 from x filesharing site for free, so she does so, and now she has her own copy that she can play with.

      Open Source computing is a great resource of alternative software and sometimes better software than you can buy. I think the grand issue of this as of now, is that yes it does help the poorer computing community (such as myself), but what is the impact of open source programs on the industry? We have almost all seen the complete lack of MS Office in many organizations who have changed to the completely free Open Office, the woes of Microsoft Windows prices to the openly free Ubuntu Linux distro, and things such as graphical work going from the ever pricey Adobe Photoshop to the completely free and extensible GIMP. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE open source and use it whenever possible to complete a task, but as a thought to pick your brain about, is what impact will it have on computing and computer publishers in the coming years? Will more commercial applications resort to free downloads of the apps they produce with the ever expected pop up adds and advertisements in the app? Or will we see the decline in commercial applications all together and see the computing world turn completely open source? My belief is that there are too many people out there who are just starting their computing life that know nothing of the open source community that will still pay for the premium software that is available. The real question for me is what is going to happen to Microsoft if they decide to hike the price of Windows 7 the way that people are speculating to a baseline of $500 or more?

    • I totally agree with you, I will welcome the new FREE media. The point of the article is that we’re just not there yet. We’re not at the stage where we can say, hey people, keep your money, spend it on food, come and see this free movie 😉

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