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Web piracy and capitalism can’t mix

by Tara Ung

Anyone who has watched a DVD since 2003 knows that digital piracy is illegal. However, despite the law and all the Anti-Piracy Warning Seals the FBI can produce, many people – especially college students – pretend piracy is not stealing.

In this digital age, piracy is a nefarious creature that manages to disguise itself as a quasi-victimless crime. After all, if the creator still has access to the product, is it really stealing?

Yes, it is – and it is imperative that supporters of property rights and the free market understand how digital piracy tramples upon both.

Creators produce content with the understanding that those who enjoy their product will compensate them for it. Creators’ property rights should include the ability to charge for the enjoyment of their product. Such a property right is what copyright laws were created to protect.

However, the internet traffic history from North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific reveals that about a quarter of internet users ignore anti-piracy laws. This study, conducted by NetNames – a digital management and intellectual property group – found that over 25 percent of the total internet population actively sought out pirated material. When researchers from Texas State University asked college students whether they believed that music piracy was stealing, 38 percent believed that it wasn’t, and over 85 percent admitted to pirating music.

Piracy harms creators and consumers alike. In 2004, U.S. motion picture companies lost an estimated $2.3 billion to internet piracy. In 2016, the estimate is $22 billion. In 2009, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) estimated that piracy accounted for over 60 percent of music downloaded from the internet. Worldwide, that estimate rises to 95 percent.

To demonstrate this effect, James Rogan of the Superior Court of California gave this analogy: imagine making 100 shirts, knowing that at least 60 of those shirts would be stolen. To compensate for anticipated losses, how would you price your shirts? His point was that investment depends upon confidence of return, and the entertainment industry depends upon investment. Entertainment companies, therefore, price their products at a rate where investors can be assured that they’ll receive adequate return, despite anticipated piracy. As piracy increases, so do prices for entertainment commodities.

The counter argument defending piracy insists upon a difference between breaking into a store to steal items and accessing an album illegally online, especially if the pirate is only doing so for personal use. Piracy, as the argument goes, is not stealing because the owner is still in possession of the content.

To address this argument, we have to take the idea of property rights in two parts. First, a person has the right of ownership – simple possession of their belongings. Second, a person has the right of usage – to do with that property what he or she pleases (so long as it does not violate anyone else’s rights).

In the first sense of property rights, piracy defenders have a sound argument. The creator does still have access and technical possession to his or her property.

The whole point, however, of selling a movie, painting, musical piece, or any digital content, is to share that music with a wider audience, and make money by doing so. By eliminating the ability of the owner to ensure that he or she will receive adequate compensation for the content, the pirate cheats the content owner out of profit.

The computer nerds responsible for torrent sites are violating property rights just as much as the thieves who break into stores and steal hard copies off the shelves.

Piracy is not a victimless crime. Yes, college students are stereotypically impoverished. But poverty does not excuse anybody for violating property rights. It is even a contributing factor to the high cost of entertainment goods. We must not engage in piracy, if we want to call ourselves defenders of property rights and the free market.


Tara Ung is a student at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Article reprinted from the college magazine

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