A Case for Piracy?

Piracy has found its way everywhere, but the legalities and effects that relate to it are still very grey.

Yatharth Sood
The Startup

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Let’s get the memes out of the way first: “You wouldn’t download a house.” is correct. I don’t think anyone will, ever. It may be hard to put drywall through a fibre-optic cable, after all. But the messaging of the advertising campaign that created this meme, years and years later, still is a point of contention among many. “Piracy. It’s a crime” was part of the campaign that released the public service announcement, and one had to watch them before the movie played on the DVD retail disk. The message it conveyed is in the title itself, and it was straightforward: you will be caught pirating, and will be penalised for theft.

Piracy has since evolved with time and has utilised newer, more novel methods to circumvent any legal barriers it may be blocked by. However, it has to be noted that it has been somewhat complicated for the law to reach pirates and pirated content — not because pirates are extremely good at their job, because a lot of people pirate without paying mind to the intricacies of the laws of their regions, but due to the laws against pirated content still being uncertain in enforcement. Significant incidents of piracy done by selected groups and individuals are yet brought to light and justice, though. However, regular content consumers are among us and are still present in droves, who do not pay too much attention to trifles like legalities and such. And, in my opinion, it is not a great look to raise a hue and cry over it either. Let me explain this position of mine, as it can be somewhat controversial. I shall present some arguments based on real-life incidents, news and experiences that all lead one to question whether the “legal” way is the best after all, or not.

“Why can I not own anything?”

A familiar sight for someone in the early 2000s. Physical media was crucial in making legitimate purchases of software or anything digital the most viable and most autonomous method of acquiring it.

In the days of “Piracy. It’s a crime”, one could own actual copies of anything they would also seek to pirate. Music for your new iPod? Yes, download it off of iTunes and save it on there! Windows XP? Yes, Microsoft sells you a copy of that. A copy of Toy Story? Get a DVD and play it on your PlayStation 2 (because it could run that!) right away! And in all these instances, once you had bought these things, you had the option to keep them safe with you, and in any manner you desire (keep it in a folder in your hard drive or store the physical media). This method of storing your “owned property” thus was legal, and you had everything you ever bought, forever. You couldn’t be arbitrarily denied access because of some technical issue, as you have a disk, an MP3 file or the executable files you need to get whatever it is you bought. Like an item of clothing, except that it gets old in a very different manner, but you still have access to it, forever. That’s a traditional approach to how economics work, and it applied to software and digital content as well.

To explain the scenario at the present moment, I would like you, dear reader, to note how many subscription-based services you are hooked to right now. Not the gym membership, the ones you do use. There’s Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify/Apple Music, and Disney+. These are just the usual suspects. The actual number goes way higher. A lot of content creators or even casual users may know of Adobe Creative Cloud, Adobe’s subscription service for their apps like Photoshop and Premiere Pro. All these are places that let you pay them a fee each month, and you could then use their services. In all the services above, you don’t get to own anything — you pay money to get nothing. Of course, you get to use the service offered, and you will get to do so in perpetuity if you pay the cost every month. But once you stop that, it’s not ours anymore. Hell, with Adobe CC, you don’t even get to access your unsaved work saved in Adobe’s proprietary file formats. We probably do not understand the detriments of it well enough. Creators of Venezuela do, though:

Venezuelan Adobe CC users got this straight from Adobe, and there was no respite for them, except for, of course, pirating the software they need from then on. Credit: u/User_26 on r/piracy (Reddit)

Because of an Executive Order issued by President Trump in 2019 against Venezuela’s government, Adobe was forbidden to do business with Venezuelan creators. This is the first problem with current “legal” methods or a case for Piracy: You don’t own anything, and so, it will be taken away from you. It is a certainty, especially with the uncertainties of our world presently. It seems a dire measure, but for many people who pirate content even if they can stream the same content for free on Netflix or its alternatives, it is something they look at quite carefully and then choose to pirate.

Another instance here, and this may be a tad famous as well, is the show The Office. The US version has been on Netflix in the United States and is the primary “legal” manner to watch the show for all people in the US. Hence, many people use Netflix to watch the show. But due to a deal between Netflix and NBC, the distributors of the show, ending this year, Netflix will no longer have The Office on it anymore. It will move to NBC’s platform, making Netflix users lose access to the show, even if you have it downloaded on your devices and connect to the Internet. The subscription model can make you lose access to content in ways that are beyond your control. This makes it a more wasteful (you now buy two or more services to get your content) and a more consumer-unfriendly (stuff just, goes) approach to paying for something.

Apple removed “The Grinch” from their library in December 2019, and people who had bought the movie had their purchase revoked without any compensation or refund or a replacement. Apple also released a different version of the same film, available to be purchased for the same price, again, for the people who owned the previous version as well.

The prevalence of this model has risen in the past decade due to the increasing ubiquity of always-connected devices and online payments. It has allowed publishers and distributors to keep profiting from the same consumer(s) month after month, whilst a traditional purchase model is a one-time transaction. This benefits the distributors of content, and the consumer ends up paying a lot more in the long term. Indeed, it has made a lot of content more readily available, but for a high amount of users, it ends up being wasteful. No one will go through Netflix’s entire library, while one would indeed check out their movie purchases over a period made on Blu-Ray. Thus, the subscription model has the upside of being convenient and in some instances, cheaper, but it has several downsides, and one of them is lack of control. It does have the allure of being competitive, as multiple services now compete to produce, curate and publish original content, but what is competition in a stalemate for a consumer? With each new service, you lose access to more and more of the content you used to be able to access. That is not a competition, but a deadlock for the subscriber. You have to buy the other service as well for the content you need. Sure, you can stick with one, and buy another for a shorter period to run through their library that’s relevant to you and then stop your commitment. But the complicated nature of it is the reason why this whole model thus becomes unfriendly for the viewer, with the alternative being paying too much money for something so non-essential. And this is the only choice a user may have. The “choice between different services” is, therefore, a falsehood.

This lack of control and choice has been addressed by pirated content in heaps. The (extremely expensive) Adobe software suite regularly tops the charts of top torrented downloads on piracy websites. Popular TV shows from all periods keep getting repackaged with each re-release at a higher quality, in an extremely compressed form, and for newer ones, with each episode in a matter of minutes. And since torrenting is peer-to-peer networking, it is potent against censorship and restrictions. No one can block this sort of file transmission completely. And this brings us to the next section in this case for piracy:

Why can I not get it? I bought what you bought too!

Taking the example of The Office (US) again, I just mentioned that it is available for viewing on Netflix in the United States. But because of the nature of these deals between streaming services and distributors being region-specific, not all places have (or had) the show on Netflix. In the UK, for instance, The Office (US) was available on Netflix in 2013 but was removed by October 2015. After that, it was unavailable to be streamed legally in the UK till 2018, when Amazon Prime picked it up. For three years, the show was somewhat arbitrarily made unable to be watched legally because of agreements and such between corporations we are mere consumers for. All Netflix users in the UK who wanted the show were just robbed of it, while Netflix US still had it. A Netflix US subscriber could open their Netflix app while in the UK and find out that they no longer have the show to view themselves. This inconsistency is confusing at best, and maddening at worst.

How streaming partnerships get handled these days is a source for news articles, and many outlets do keep a close eye on what is “leaving” a platform and what is “coming” to one. The extent to which this locking out is done affects the popularity of a series or movie in a given region as well, which could contribute to a lot of revenue for the producers, or could rob them of it quite easily. One wouldn’t, for example, go out of their way to gain access to a series that has already concluded and is available on some streaming platform to watch if that platform is relatively unpopular or expensive. Had it been on a more popular platform, was promoted well in the service, and was maintained well with subtitles and (if applicable) all episodes available, it would have caught on much better.

Greyed-out music files on Spotify’s India’s version. These all have been saved to the users’ library, and hence they had indeed listened to those songs before at some point when they were available on Spotify, but are now gone and unavailable to listen. Credit: @bufftrad on Twitter.

An example that is quite familiar to me personally has to do with Spotify. In India, Spotify launched relatively late, a few years after Apple Music, its straight competitor in many ways, and several after other Indian services had already made headway in the market. In early 2019, I purchased a month-long subscription to Spotify India, after using the free US version of it via a VPN for more than 15 months, hoping to continue using it from then on. But frustratingly, I found that around 40% of my music library was unavailable to listen, and all those tracks were greyed out, impossible to be downloaded or accessed at all. Keep in mind; I had been listening to this music for 15 months now, on the same app. After some investigation, I found out that all music from the Warner Music Group (WMG) has been restricted in India for all their Spotify users, because of complications in a deal between them. I used the Indian version for a month and then went back to the free US version, and gave it another shot in early 2020, to see if this problem is past Spotify India, but it wasn’t. Only later in 2020 has it been resolved, and now India gets WMG music to listen to. Notable artists people were mentioning were absent included Charlie Puth, Ed Sheeran, Linkin Park and Daft Punk. It took Spotify more than a year to get WMG’s library to India, after delaying the release of the platform itself for more than a year before that as well, and it is only now that users can get the same thing as what they could if they would buy the subscription in the US.

And this all is to say nothing of the removal of singular tracks and albums that are frequent occurrences worldwide on all platforms for one reason or another related to copyright and legal barriers. This has only contributed towards increasing the absolute ubiquity of workarounds for these issues, as they can provide one with the exact thing they were trying to pay for, but weren’t getting it. For example, as I alluded to before, I use a VPN to log into Spotify in the US to get my music “fix”, and it has worked for me very well. Pirated music used to be downloaded as MP3’s once, but streaming media has reduced that extensively. It has also reduced music piracy by a tremendous amount by being more straightforward and cheaper for casual listeners. Still, as mentioned just now, even that can be a hassle for them due to “Legalese”. And thus, the second argument for piracy in 2020 is that unless you have a platform-independent method for retrieving content you have purchased, there is the possibility of it going away due to something beyond your control. And that, inherently, is not ownership at all. Piracy lets you achieve that, and many people embrace it for this reason.

“I Just Don’t Get it Here (Without Dumping Half of What I’d Pay to Eat This Month)!”

This is all about the question of availability. Can you even get this anywhere? Alternatively, if you do, is it reasonable to buy?

Take the case of anime and manga. Japanese animated shows and comics are top-rated westwards as well, and many such series or movies have a dedicated following outside of Japan. But due to several reasons, most likely the overhead costs of doing such a thing, not many make it across the Pacific and to the rest of the world after that. Not for lack of trying, though. Netflix has made many moves to acquire rights to many anime works to bring them to overseas catalogues, while dedicated services like Crunchyroll also have their libraries for anime. But they usually have not kept up with demand or have an incomplete library of episodic programmes. This lack of supply amidst a surprisingly consistent demand is far worse with manga. Very few mangas have official English translations and the ones made my fans frequently get taken down and targeted by the publishers because of copyright issues.

KissAnime and KissManga were shut down in August 2020 after Japan enacted stricter laws against copyright content. But a lot of the people served by the sites were not Japanese and were left with no platform to get anime and manga content at all. This was from their official Discord server, and it is indeed sad to see.

These lead us to another reason why piracy has to swoop in: Cases where there is simply no other option. You may be willing to pay, you may be willing to pay via PayPal even when support for it in your country is sketchy at best, but who do you even pay? Manga is a great example to understand this. “Fan Translations” are reproductions and distributions of content protected under copyright, which gives publishers the authority to go ahead and fight against it being present on the Internet without their express authorisation. But, when they do that and act against these translations, they do not replace them with a version that is legal and does the same job. Manga translations are rarely published officially. Thus, what publishers end up doing is getting rid of the one method of content distribution many people are reliant on, and then failing to replace it. One egregious thing about this is that if the argument to do something like this has to do with reduced profits, then why is there no option for the legal purchase of the content they just took down? You, as a consumer, may WANT to give them your money for something you may enjoy, but they will not sell it to you. Then why is piracy bothering them at all? There is little to no overlap between consumers who would potentially buy something but are forced to pirate and the consumers who COULD buy your products at all.

We think there is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem. For example, if a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24/7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country three months after the U.S. release and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable.

-Gabe Newell, co-founder of Valve, Inc. (source)

A fair amount of software publishers and indie game developers view piracy favourably, as it gives all potential users a chance to try their software out, before deciding whether they would pay money to them or not. It is a bit similar to having a lenient “Free” version of the same app and providing a user with the chance to pay if they like the thing enough. Granted, the conversion rate of such users will not be a glamorous figure, but it will be the same or worse if the software is not usable at all without being purchased. Sometimes, piracy is just a minuscule amount of exposure for developers without the means to back their creations with aggressive marketing. This also holds for something like manga and anime. These niches were explored by many through piracy, and if there is no suitable alternative to pirating it, there will be much less interest in them, if at all.

All these are parts of the reason why piracy is not the choice only picked by “freeloaders” or “thieves”. Some pirates are people with the means, the time, and even the “morals” to support the creators behind what they are consuming. Still, they are sometimes bound by the intricacies of distribution, and “sailing the high seas” is the only way around that dry, undesirable island of subscription services, arbitrary strongarming of content by providers and DRM (read below) that no one wants to be beached on, yet many seem to gravitate towards.

On Anti-Piracy Measures: Parting Notes

It is a tragedy.

There is no dearth of methods that content providers seem to come up with to reduce the ease with which something may get pirated. It was prevalent with gaming consoles, especially when CD’s became the standard media for games to be sold on, to be region-specific and have region-specific versions of games for it, or to have some check in the disc itself to verify its legitimacy. From that to Denuvo, DRM (Digital Rights Management) has evolved into frankly what is a hot mess at the moment. Denuvo Anti-Tamper is a piece of software made by Denuvo Corporation. They work in close collaboration with major game publishers to make sure their games are safe from being “cracked” or being fully reproducible without requiring a legitimate purchase record of the game. Denuvo has been vital in delaying the release of new games on torrent and redistribution websites, as it has proven to be incredibly difficult to crack by groups that work to release such workarounds (although they do not distribute the files themselves or earn anything from it at all). Denuvo has been a source of drama and has fuelled a lot of groups either out of contention entirely or to the centre-stage in the piracy “Scene”.

Devil May Cry 5 pre and post-Denuvo removal. The executable file has been shrunk to a fourth of its size after removing Denuvo. However, the impact on the game’s performance was minuscule due to the effective implementation of Denuvo in this instance. This is not always the case with all games. Credits: TechPowerUp

But Denuvo’s success has come at a cost to the end-user. It has been proven verifiably, that Denuvo is software bloat for any user running the game at all times, as it can take up resources that otherwise would help run the game smoothly or can take up more storage space as well. Game executable files have drastically been made smaller after the successful removal of Denuvo, and users have even seen a performance boost in-game after the removal. Many publishers remove Denuvo voluntarily after the game is sufficiently old and has already been successfully cracked. Even that has helped users notice a boost in performance in the cracked game. High-profile contributors to games have also admitted that it has interfered with the game’s experience for them and the end-user as well. All in all, DRM has been successful, but the purpose behind it always has been to delay piracy, not stop it. And it has also affected typical end-users as well in the process.

The existence of piracy and pirated content will not be hindered by the presence of measures against it. It is all here to stay. I cannot say much for large corporations and how they should navigate their products around piracy because I am not as qualified as their lawyers and management may be. What I can say with a reasonable amount of surety, is that measures against piracy have come into existence solely for maximisation of profit, and the more modern methods of content monetisation have led to a consumer culture that is bound entirely by smaller transactions of money that are required frequently by people willing to consume said content. Additionally, the implementation of these models has strongarmed consumers into restrictive choices and circumstances, and people who pirate now are more often than not, such people. The trope of “freeloading” has been brought into relative obscurity by these platforms while at the same time giving rise to a different user base of piracy and pirated content.

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Yatharth Sood
The Startup

Business enquiries: yatharthsood00 (at) gmail (dot) com.