Monday, March 5, 2012

On piracy

Yes, another controversial topic: Piracy. It's pretty prevalent today - you probably know at least 5 people that have pirated software, and you might have pirated some software yourself; I myself have pirated software in the past, albeit before I knew of the legal and moral issues surrounding it.

So what makes piracy so popular? The most obvious reason is you get a piece of software you'd normally have to pay for for free, and everyone loves that. Except the people who wrote the software, and that's what this short essay is going to be about.

First let's get our terms straight: What is piracy? It's basically the act of downloading a copy of a piece of software that was not made by the software's author - in other words, copyright infringement. Now, is there anything legally wrong with piracy? Quite a bit. How about morally? Er, that's not so clear in some cases.

When you pirate a piece of software that's still being distributed in some legal form, you're basically saying: "Mr. Software Author, I like the software you wrote, but I don't like xxx about it (price, DRM, etc...). Shame on you, so I'm going to take your software and use it for free." I can't really see any way to justify this line of thinking, at least from Mr. Software Author's point of view.

You might say you're not hurting Mr. Software Author by pirating his software, and you might be right, depending upon how rich he is. But that doesn't change the fact that you took something that wasn't yours. You're not entitled to Mr. Software Author's product, and if you don't want to use it the way he wants you to use it, don't use it at all.

If Mr. Software Author's product is tainted with DRM, and that's the reason you're giving for pirating his product, consider this: Will your circumvention of the DRM Mr. Software Author set in place cause him to remove the already present DRM? No - on the contrary, he'll probably add more! Instead of pirating a DRM'ed product (which is still taking something that isn't yours), support a non-DRM'ed one instead. Lack of customers will change Mr. Software Author's opinion on DRM more than anything else.

Now, what do you do in the (very common) case of software whose parent company is either defunct or no longer distributes the software in question? This is both a legal and moral gray area. I mean, technically you're still guilty of copyright infringement, but the copyright owner no longer exists, so it's a legal gray area. It's a morally gray area because while you're still taking something that really isn't yours, you're offered no alternative method to download the software in question.

What about if the parent company exists, but they no longer distribute the software in question? You often see this sort of thing happening with arcade ROMs. My personal take on this case - IANAL - is it's fine (morally so - this is a legal gray area) to pirate arcade ROMs, but only if the parent company offers no way to get the ROMs via other means. For example, Capcom offers Street Fighter Alpha 2 on the Wii Virtual Console platform, but not Street Fighter Alpha 3. So pirating Alpha 3 would be fine by me, but I wouldn't pirate Alpha 2.

I hope this essay on piracy has been an interesting read for you. I also hope it makes you think about the moral and legal implications of piracy a bit more - hey, you might even solve this whole legal mess. :)

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