Monday, May 17, 2010

On Pirates

As you might expect, I think a fair amount about piracy. This comes up more in my life than in many people's life, because I'm touching on many different kinds of piracy due to my diverse (IE, random) interests.

Most geeks just think about software, music, and movie piracy, but there's a lot of other kinds of piracy that don't usually get mentioned because this crowd doesn't really encounter them much. For example, if you're an artist with a web presence, you've probably had your artwork pirated. Sometimes this is just by someone who wants a cool-looking picture for their homepage, but sometimes it's by a corporation who puts it on shirts or mugs or whatever.

This kind of piracy feels a lot more "bad", because these people are copying something directly owned by a particular creator. But I'm not sure that it is bad. Or, rather, I think that this is a lumpy situation where we've put dozens of different things in with the same label, just to make things as mind-bogglingly inconvenient as possible.

Here's another example: there are now no less than two web sites actively republishing this blog. I post, they clone the post and put it on their site. With ads and, in one case, malware. Not an RSS feed: a full republication. Since one of my cloners has a higher Google rank than me, you may even be reading this on their system: if it's not on my ProjectPerko stationary, you're reading an illegal copy.

My blog isn't very popular, so I can only imagine that bigger names have a lot more cloners.

It seems to me we have several different kinds of things going on, and that it's not just law that hasn't caught up: it's us. We haven't caught up. Our language is not keeping up.

Someone who clones all your content instantly and uses it to make money/spread malware for their own benefit is one kind of thing. Someone who uses something you made for personal use - such as on their personal web page or for their chat avatar - is another kind of thing. And someone who copies content with the intention to enjoy it without paying you what you requested is a third category entirely. There are probably other categories, but these are the three I can see.

They exist for three different reasons. I call these three things "resale", "use", and "blockade" piracy. I keep using the word piracy because I like the word piracy, but some things covered in fair use are so close to these that they are almost identical. Only the vagaries of law and corporate meddling have made us view some of these as piracy and others as legal. For example, reselling video games is not legal by EULA and clearly fits as "resale piracy", but it's legal.

Resale piracy is, in my mind, the worst. These are people using your content to make a profit and they never negotiated with you to cut you in on it. These people are outright thieves: they are literally taking something of value away from you, unlike most "piracy", which is just copying data that they wouldn't have bought anyway. Resale piracy is complex, and we need to think about it some more: once someone has obtained your product, what are their rights? Can they resell it to someone for a profit? Can they clone it and sell the clones? Can they display it publicly? Can they use it to increase traffic to their site? These questions are hard because the types of uses we normally accept vary so widely by type of medium.

On the other hand, use piracy is probably the most forgivable kind of piracy, to the point where when I see someone getting upset about it, I dismiss them as a control freak. If someone uses your art in a music video, or as a chat avatar, or whatever, I have a hard time getting upset about it. They aren't making any money out of it, they aren't stealing any money from you, at worst they do nothing, at best you get some people interested in your art. A lot of these people either do not give credit to the original artist, or actively claim that they are the original artist. This is kind of an asshole thing to do, but I still don't see it as much of a problem. If they do give credit, I have a very hard time taking your offense seriously. There are some situations where this might be bad - for example, if someone co-opts your art, adds a swastika, and makes it their neo-Nazi homepage. But, in general, that's vanishingly rare.

The most common kind of piracy, at least as far as I can tell, is "blockade piracy". This is when you've attempted to gate your content, to control its spread, and people decide they'd prefer to have it without the interference. This brings us to the touchiest part of the situation.

I think most people would agree that resale piracy is bad and use piracy is not very bad. But very few people think that blockade piracy is halfway between them: I think most people either view blockade piracy as bad, or as not very bad.

That's another article on its own. I just wanted to post about how we keep lumping different things together under the mantle of "piracy".


Ellipsis said...

"Blockade piracy" sounds absurdly more badass than "file sharing". I feel like if it's happening, it must logially be co-incident with explosions.

Craig Perko said...


Well, it's actually more than just file sharing, it's any kind of gating-evasion. File sharing is just the most common version.

Christopher Weeks said...

And of course, we all know people who adamantly declare that all of these are "theft," when none of them exactly are. Even your resale-pirates, your use of the word thieves notwithstanding, aren't doing the same thing as someone who rips off your car.

Adrian Lopez said...

"For example, reselling video games is not legal by EULA and clearly fits as 'resale piracy', but it's legal."

I don't see how the label "piracy" applies to this kind of activity any more than it applies to reselling your car. Considering EULAs don't involve any kind of real agreement (being merely impositions of terms masquerading as agreements), ethical arguments against selling used games are bound to fail.

Craig Perko said...

I'm certainly not advocating EULAs. I'm saying that there is as much legal reason to sue Gamestop for reselling as there is to sue you for making a mix tape for your friends.

And, obviously, I don't think piracy is the same as stealing a c...

Why am I saying this? You guys are arguing against things I never said. I'm not going to spend time reassuring everyone I agree with them, that's pointless. It should be obvious.

Adrian Lopez said...

"I'm saying that there is as much legal reason to sue Gamestop for reselling as there is to sue you for making a mix tape for your friends."

But the legal rationale is completely different in each case. Making a mix tape involves copying, selling used games does not. It's simply a matter of labeling things as accurately as possible, even if both of us end up reaching the same conclusion about what should and should not be illegal.

Christopher Weeks said...

I was agreeing with you -- feel free not to argue with my agreement. :)

Craig Perko said...

Sorry, I've been in the sky all week. I'm pretty tired and grumpy.