Piracy – and old snapshot of what it means

“He who is without sin, cast the first stone…”

(edit: Sept 2010 – Here’s an old piece and evidence of me procrastinating for at least 6 years to publish my crazy tech rambling. I’ve done minimal editing, even though some of the examples are outdated cause I still very much believe in what I wrote back then. And perhaps more importantly, I’ve yet to see the legal side of things really improve…)

2 October 2004

Yes. I know YOU don’t buy or use pirated goods. Whatever they may be. Music Cds, Computer Games, Nokia Phone covers…but you probably KNOW someone who does…it’s just not you or me.

Piracy has always been a very sticky, dangerous topic to deal with or write about. In my mind, that word has strong associations with Microsoft lawsuits and forced Disney newspaper ads where confectionary retailers take ad space and apologize for baking an unauthorized Mickey Mouse birthday cake for the daughter of THAT FRIEND that you know in some neighborhood in Singapore

Let me be upfront, I DON’T CONDONE it and firmly believe that you should use original products because I believe in giving everything its due respect, appreciation and reward…for work done. I’m sure you do to. But I wonder how many of us who are strongly against piracy actually comprehend what it means?

What is piracy?

Dictionary.com defines piracy as:

The unauthorized use or reproduction of copyrighted or patented material: software piracy. The operation of an unlicensed, illegal radio or television station.

It does make sense and it’s what you’d probably expect isn’t it?

Well to me. Yes and No.

Yes the definition of piracy is spot on and true with what I always suspected it to be, but “no” because the definition doesn’t offer any ethical reasons why one should not commit such a bad act apart from fear of legal repercussions. Now read the definition again. “Unauthorized, copyrighted, patent, unlicensed, illegal”. Now imagine explaining this definition to a 12 year old boy who has $20 dollars in his pocket and is faced a choice of buying one original software for $80 and an exact replica of it for $10. Imagine the thoughts running through his head. I imagine that thoughts of being sleazy and a pirate and a cheat is actually one of the last things in his mind. Perhaps, he may be worried about what would happen if his strict dad found out he spent 4 weeks of allowance on something he could have got for 1/8 the price? Perhaps he doesn’t want to seem like a snob in front of all his friends who’d then accuse him of being a rich brat.

I hope you understand by now. I’m not condoning piracy. But I firmly believe that to even try to cope with it (The Asian continent being number 1 now for many years for software piracy), moral ethics, correct accurate education and common sense must be part of our focus and OUR definition of piracy.

And regarding “correct, accurate education” – I MEAN CORRECT, ACCURATE EDUCATION. Not some marketing jargon for “our original copy will give you true 128bit sound quality as opposed…” I’m not saying it’s not true, I’m saying it probably means very little when you’re that 12 year  in a shop faced with choices like these.

You can think of your own examples yourself, here’s another: Which would you pay for?

A so-called original Laksa from Katong for $3.50 or the Original, Original Laksa for $35.00?

You may disagree that Laksa may not be the best example but I believe it’s all part of our psychological make-up. Human Beings, not just Singaporeans, are smart and have always been brought up to make the best decisions based on all the available facts. My colleague Tom puts it this way in a negative spin: The path of least resistance. Whenever you want people to do things your way, give them 3 options and make sure 2 of the 3 are ridiculous, painful choices.

Why else do we take a short cut across a grass patch instead of walking a bigger circle around the pavement?

If for nothing else, I’m speaking from experience and self-belief. I buy an original game because I know and care that a huge bunch of programmers have worked themselves to the ground for the last 2 years at least in putting something together that they care a lot for. And I respect them for that. I admire that kind of passion. And I know, that I know that I know, in my heart that that is the right thing to do. Not because the law says so.

But I feel that this is one of those things that’s strongly lacking in our education system of self-beliefs. And the definition of piracy.

Respect. Appreciation. Do unto others at you’d want them to do unto you.

But don’t get all teary-eyed yet.

It’s a two way street.

Consumers shouldn’t pirate.

Consumers should respect. But so should the responsible software, music and other companies within their industries. I can think of many examples of this done right. Unfortunately, most cases don’t fall in this category and there are some appalling ones which border on the lines of stupidity.

Good example: Apple iTunes music store. This is a star achievement in my book cause it gives all the legitimate people their dues and it allows users to download ONLY the songs they want without having to put up with 10 or 11 other ones they would otherwise have had to pay for from a regular CD.

But I’ve read that not everyone in the music industry is happy with this. I wonder why? Could it be that this will then truly show the consumers’ voting power about what they want so accurately that it is no longer possible to bundle mediocre content together in a package? And when people download ONLY the songs they want illegally, then piracy is used as a tool to prevent that. It’s a two-way street. And consumers, if you haven’t figured it out by now, think and make smart, choices based on the path of least resistance.

Good example: Microsoft X-Box gaming bundle and X-Box Live. Microsoft did two fantastic things right here. First they knew that games sold the console and it was IMPORTANT to give people the ETHICAL satisfaction of owning their own original games so they got people off on the right foot by giving them a good 2 or 3 (high quality, this must be noted – consumers are not dumb) games. And with X-Box Live, Microsoft has TRULY given weight to WHY buying an original product has true extra benefits. I love this example because it is POSITIVE.

So many other practices in the consumer business is NEGATIVE and as previously mentioned, frankly iditotic.

An ex-colleague, and good friend of mine, has sworn off buying many original music CDs because they refuse to play on his PowerBook. So how in the world is he supposed to get the music in the CD that he has paid for into his iPod? Isn’t it laughable that the very consumers who belief in buying original goods are put off by legal mechanics that pre-supposes them of being the evil ones. Is this mechanic of getting CDs to not play on computers legal? Of course it is. But is it fair? Think for yourselves.

The law is running out of options too.

One recent story you may have read now is that some parallel imported music CDs from China can be LEGALLY purchased even though they are half the price of our locally produced ones, and don’t even benefit our distributors here. The situation is seriously affecting record label revenues. So what do you do when the law doesn’t cover such a case? Look at the definition of piracy again and remove all the legal, negative words.
The unauthorized use or reproduction of copyrighted or patented material: software piracy. The operation of an unlicensed, illegal radio or television station.

You end up with:

The use or reproduction of material: software. The operation of a radio or television station.

Ironic that the definition above ceases to have any meaning when we remove all the legal terms, because that’s really all that’s there at the moment. No sense of moral obligation, appreciation or respect. Maybe that’s why we get in a consumer/corporate mess like the China CDs situation when there is only the law and the law is removed.

It really is a two-way street. Just as it’s important to educate consumers about the right thing to do, I feel that corporations have an obligation to constantly re-examine their prices, their policies, their products and determine what is the right and fair thing to do.

The day when people buy original because they want to, not because they’re legally forced to, is the day when I feel that we can truly tackle piracy.

It’s an ethical dilemma, not just a legal one.


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