The popular image of a pirate is a man at sea wearing a black patch over one eye who sails around with other men in a multiple-masted ship commandeering other ships for their booty. Motorized variations of such piracy still exist around the world, but the much more prevalent kind of piracy today is digital.
Digital pirates take and either consume or redistribute software, music, films, TV shows, books, and other proprietary content over the Internet without authorization and without paying for it. As with seaborne piracy, digital piracy in the end is paid for, through higher prices, by those who buy things legally.
Recently the Internet’s most notorious piracy conduit, boastfully named The Pirate Bay, made news when it was shut down in Sweden. Stockholm police in December seized computer servers and other equipment.
The Pirate Bay was created in 2003 by a group in Sweden protesting copyright laws around the world to catalog available digital content. Since then it has been raided several times and been involved in a number of lawsuits.
As with similar websites, Pirate Bay users employ software based on the BitTorrent file-sharing protocol to send and receive content. With BitTorrent software, users are able to share content on a peer-to-peer basis, among themselves. This means there’s no central repository, and it makes it more difficult for authorities to stop the pirating.
Another challenge is the widely distributed nature of the Internet itself. The Pirate Bay has numerous “mirror sites,” providing the same content, and there are still other BitTorrent sites that are similar. One BitTorrent site has even made available software that lets people create their own version of The Pirate Bay. At the time of this writing, the original Pirate Bay was back online.
Digital pirates provide various arguments defending their practices, but the most common seems to be some variation of the longstanding Internet maxim “Information wants to be free.” This statement may have been first made by Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand in 1984, about a decade before the Internet started becoming widely used.
People seeking free content on the Internet have used Brand’s words to justify their not paying for what they can get for free, legally or otherwise. It particularly resonates with the “cyberpunk” movement, which seeks to “liberate” information that it believes is being held captive. But the other part of what Brand said is, “Information also wants to be expensive. … That tension will not go away.”
Along with legitimate buyers having to pay more, another downside to piracy is that it could potentially lessen a key incentive for those coding software, recording music, producing movies, and writing books. In our society people are paid for their work, but if consumers of it take it without ponying up, who’s going to pay the mortgage? The online advertising model, so successful for companies such as Google and Facebook, isn’t appropriate for all content.
Pirates rationalize that multinational corporations get rich through overcharging, but it’s not always faceless bureaucracies behind the intellectual property that’s one of the hallmarks of advanced civilization. With so much content available for free online, we’re already seeing a dumbing down, with less time and effort going into content creation.
There’s also a risk for pirates. Penalties for piracy in the U.S. range from a fine between $750 and $30,000 per illegally downloaded work to up to five years in prison. Often lawsuits are brought by a motion picture studio or association and settled out of court, sometimes with hefty assessments.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that, relatively speaking, consumers of pirated content rarely get caught, but some do, and the potential is always there. People redistributing pirated content for profit are bigger targets. Businesses also have greater exposure. When employees pirate software or other content using company equipment, the company is liable.
Pirated computer software costs the software industry billions. The most common way software is pirated by businesses is when a company with 100 to 500 employees buys a few copies of a program and installs it on hundreds of PCs. Software piracy may be rationalized by the company president or IT manager as utilizing resources most efficiency. Regions in the world with the most rampant software piracy are Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America.
The largest organization policing against software piracy is the Business Software Alliance, which is funded by the software industry. It offers a confidential way for employees and others to report piracy by businesses and gives cash rewards with successful cases.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgold.com.