The Ethics of Being a Modern Pirate

5 Key words I found challenging: 
1. Subactivism, 2. subpolitics, 3. skeumorphs, 4. piracy, 5. intellectual property

My definition of ‘intellectual property’ is an intangible process, idea or schematic created by an individual or group that they wish to retain control over usually in the form of a patent or through copyright.

From a young age I remember seeing anti-piracy adverts and scary warnings at the beginning of VHS tapes and DVDs and pretty soon I was convinced anyone partaking in the sale, distribution or purchase of pirated movies deserved nothing less than a long stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Then I discovered computers, the internet and everything that came with it, and it left me both conflicted and confused.

Coming from a family that could barely afford the computer and internet connection in the first place, asking for extra programs and utilities for the PC was not at all viable. However, my older brother showed me a good little work around; torrenting.

My attitude had changed and I was now completely anti big business, corporations and Hollywood film studios demanding mad amounts of money to use and view their products. In my mind everything should be free!

Guardian article using a screenshot from my video.

Fast forward a few years and while browsing the Guardian, I had found that they had used an image I created without my permission or credit, which had me understandably annoyed and angry. How dare someone think it’s okay to use something that I put so much effort into without me receiving any compensation for my labour… It was this moment that made me rethink my views on intellectual property and online piracy.

This article will explore some ethical arguments for online piracy with personal anecdotes which may also be applicable for others and focusing mainly on application piracy and will show the limitations of said arguments. I will end by posing questions on pirate ethics.

When looking at the top torrents on Pirate Proxy, it is interesting to note that many of the top downloaded applications are not games, but utilities for computers, with the most popular of those being Microsoft products such as Windows and Office and Adobe Creative products such as Photoshop and Illustrator. I myself have contributed to the popularity of some of these torrents, with a cracked version of Adobe CC being one of my first installs on my new laptop.

My desktop of my new laptop showing which applications I first downloaded

My first argument for piracy being ethical is that it removes the financial barriers to hobbies and professions. For many, myself included, spending hundreds of pounds on Photoshop, Sony Vegas or FL Studio is not something that can be easily justified. By being able to freely access full versions of programs instantly, piracy has opened up opportunities for thousands of people to try their hand at creative projects using these platforms that would previously be reserved for the rich or those in that professional field. Though I have little statistical backing, I am sure that many of the artists, producers and programmers coming up today would not be where they are if they didn’t have access to these programs brought to them by piracy.

A key example of this is the YouTube star KSI, who in 2016 was caught using a cracked version of Sony Vegas. Without him being able to access professional standard video editing software at the start of his online career, I doubt he would have made it to the level he is currently at. However, this raises my first question and limitation of this argument for piracy. KSI, through YouTube and other means, has become a celebrity and is a multimillionaire, so at what point does it become unethical to continue consuming paid content for free through privacy when you have the means to afford it? When can you no longer justify being a pirate?

Following from my first point, is a common ethical argument that the ills of today are a small price for the benefits they bring in the future. For example, the ill of people pirating copies of programming applications is cancelled out when those same people end up contributing to the programming community (and maybe even working for the same company) and create a net benefit by bringing their skill and creativity, something that would have not been discovered if it weren’t for the ill of their illegal download. During my computing A-level we needed to use a MS Access 2010 which was no longer available on the Microsoft website. Our teacher said we had to “acquire it by other means” and showed a slide picturing a shortened link to Kickass Torrents. Similarly, other teachers photocopied copyrighted textbooks for us to use in school, breaching intellectual property laws. Both examples illustrate scenarios where it can be seen that breach of the law can be done ‘ethically’ due to the promise of a future payback to society.

This view is again limited in that there is no guarantee that the individuals in questions consuming this pirated content will necessarily go on to improve society or the industry. Though rather pedantic, it could be argued that for 5000 odd people who are currently seeding ‘Microsoft OFFICE 2010 Pro Plus PRECRACKED’ to balance what they owe in lost revenues to Microsoft for a £60 application, they would have to contribute at least £300,000 of productivity, creativity and innovation back into society or the company per year (though this may be conflating economic and ethical viewpoints, it’s a point I still feel is relevant).

Though I could go on about the other economic arguments such as piracy serving as a marker for changing services (such as pushing Adobe to move from a one time payment model to a subscription model, and helping nurture businesses like Netflix), I only have limited amount of words to express these arguments.

My ethical adventure has lead me from being hardcore anti-piracy, to being vehemently for everything being online for free and back to a solid middle ground which I must admit at times sounds like I’m pro-piracy only when it suits me. However this article has shown that during this time of developing online legislation and the boundaries of the internet being drawn up, there should certainly be a focus on the ethical arguments and implications for policy moves in either direction.

Seminar questions:
1) At what point does piracy become unethical and can no longer be justified?
2) Can piracy ever be justified?

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