November 15, 2019 — Opinion
The Ethics of Media Piracy
Is media piracy perhaps excuseable?
Pirating is the act of illegally obtaining copyrighted digital media1 such as movies, tv shows and music. Downloading media online is most often done using the peer-to-peer protocol called BitTorrent, because it’s extremely difficult to shut down, since there is no central source.
Digital piracy started around the same time that personal computers became more common in the home; the mid 1970s2. In the beginning computer hobbyists known as “hackers” would make hard copies of software to be shared, because they believed software should be open and free to access by everyone.
Illegal sharing of music started in 1992 when the commonly know format MP3 was officially published, which allowed users to share music in much smaller file sizes than before, while maintaining a respectable quality. 7 years later Napster is released, which gives users an easy way to download and play illegal music.3
Now let’s quickly discuss the reasons behind someone deciding to pirate a song in the 1990s / early 2000s. In 2002 a typical CD would cost you $194. That’s steep price of you just wanted to listen to one song, or if you want to listen to more than just one album. If you liked to listen to a lot of music, and had to purchase every single CD, it would very quickly become very expensive. It’s no wonder that so many turned to piracy to listen to a bit of music.
Understanding and sympathising with reasons behind music piracy, Apple announced the iTunes Music Store in 2003. Apple had now provided an easy and financially viable alternative to piracy. With Apple’s new music store it was possible to buy single songs and put them on your iPod or burn mixes to CDs.5
Even though there had now been provided a good legal alternative to pirating, the underground music market (so-to-speak) did not die out. People continued to steal music. Why? Well the original iPod had space for around 1,000 songs6. If you had to pay for every song to fill up that iPod that would cost you $1,000, all while the alternative was free. Apple had only made a dent in piracy levels, but it was far from dead.
Let’s skip forward a couple of years to eventual solution to the problem of music piracy. The only real solution would be offer a service that was better than piracy. That’s when Spotify launched in 2008 in many countries and 2011 in the US. You could listen to a large catalogue of music for free with ads or ad-free for the simple price of $9.99 a month. This was an excellent deal because Spotify had millions of songs!
Spotify and other streaming services still didn’t kill music piracy, but in 2019 most people listen to their music legally7. Those who still pirate, well, that’s a discussion for another time.
Now that we understand the reasons behind music piracy and how it was largely eradicated, let’s turn our focus to a media still plagued by piracy today; films.
Watching movies illegally is so common, you may not even known you’ve done it. Maybe you’ve heard of Popcorn Time? It’s an application, which allows users to easily watch movies and TV shows using torrents. Everything about it seems legal, apart from the fact that it’s completely free. In reality it’s super illegal. Maybe you’ve googled “A Star is Born free” and ended up on 5movies.cloud or something of the likes. Well, that’s also illegal even though it’s so easy. Point is, you’ve probably pirated a movie before.
Back when Netflix released its streaming service in the US, it looked like film and TV piracy finally met its match. For only $9.99/m you had access to a large movie and TV library. In fact, in June 2009 Netflix had reached 12,000 movies and TV shows8.
So the road from here to the end of piracy should be easy, right? Yes, it should’ve been, but not long after, the copyright holders of different media saw the opportunity to create their own streaming service so they didn’t have to share any profits with Netflix. Now in 2019 Netflix has become a producer of original content, and many popular films and TV shows are leaving the platform.
The problem that’s occurred in the streaming industry is an extreme fragmentation, meaning users can no longer subscribe to a single service for all their entertainment needs. For $9.99/m you only get access to a smaller collection of media, and you’re forced to subscribe to multiple different providers if you want access to a large collection.
Game of Thrones? HBO. Star Wars? Disney+. Stranger Things? Netflix. The Office (US)? NBCUniversal. The Grand Tour? Amazon Prime. And just so many more.
So is it ethical to download movies and TV shows illegally? Of course not, but I think I’ve made a pretty good case for why it’s completely understandable. So until the Spotify of movies and other media comes along, piracy will prevail, and for good reason.