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Do Justifications For Content Piracy Really Hold Up Under Scrutiny?

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Anyone who pirates content has motivations for doing so from the basic "I can't afford it" through a rainbow of other explanations. Some call these reasons, others believe they're dressed-up excuses. But when people feel piracy is justified, a reasonable response to a set of unfair circumstances, it becomes much more difficult to have then change their habits.

pirateflag.jpgThere are hundreds of places around the Internet inhabited by content pirates. From dedicated forums and chat channels attached to file-sharing sites to more public entities like Reddit, discussion about piracy isn’t difficult to find.

Reddit’s /r/piracy sub-Reddit, for example, is both huge, public, and intriguing. To outsiders, its 534,000+ members are hardcore content pirates who will copy anything digital, in any way humanly possible. But that only describes a sub-set of the population.

For those who stick around long enough, a more diverse mix can be discerned. While the place is clearly inhabited by some who flat-out refuse to buy anything, there are also plenty of contributors who appear to buy content but pirate on the odd occasion, to supplement an already expensive monthly outlay. Reasons to pirate can be seen everywhere and are often expressed by posters.

Some of the most common and recurring posts are now titled/flaired “dAtS wHy I pIrAtE!!!” These can range from a picture of an empty wallet to memes bemoaning security systems such as Denuvo. Dozens of variants can be found, such as the timeless classic of depriving increasingly ‘greedy’ corporate entities of cash to ensure they don’t “take over the world”.

When put under the microscope, however, do they stand up to scrutiny? As personal reasons to pirate, they are all legitimate, as legitimate as something can be when it’s illegal, of course. But as strict justification, as a solid argument that piracy is actually a reasonable response to a complicated set of negative circumstances and perceptions, things begin to get interesting.

This week one Reddit user attempted to put every reason why someone might pirate into a single post and while the list seems pretty comprehensive, it fails – as this article will too – to cover every possible angle. That is because everyone is different or, as some will argue, the reasons aren’t reasons at all but merely excuses to pirate.

It will come as no surprise that not being able to afford content comes at the top of the list. It is the most enduring reason for piracy since piracy began but one that can be viewed from another angle too. Is it always about not having the money, period, or is it often about saving that money so it can be spent elsewhere on things that can’t be obtained for free?

This leads to another infamous theory, the one regarding the so-called ‘lost sale’. If people genuinely have no money, then there isn’t a lost sale. If they do have money but choose not to spend it, that raises questions of whether something was lost as a result of that instance of piracy and why another business sector, one selling alcohol or sneakers, for example, has more right to that revenue than content creators.

Ah, content creators…and distributors. Now there’s an interesting bunch. There can be little doubt that video services like Netflix and Disney+ and gaming platforms like Steam are smash-hits with consumers. They appear to offer content not only at a fair price but also surrounded by a user-friendly experience. At least to some extent they are solving the piracy puzzle by hitting that sweet spot of being pocket-friendly and a pleasure to use. Until they aren’t.

While Netflix aims to release its own content around the world simultaneously, its country-specific libraries are a constant pain in the neck for consumers. How many times have Netflix customers read online that a show is available to stream and yet when they try to find it, it’s unavailable in their region? These geo-restrictions seem absolutely ridiculous to Joe Public and while they don’t provide a cast-iron reason to pirate, some people – arguably quite rightly – feel justified in obtaining that content for free.

After all, they’re being short-changed, aren’t they?

The problem here is that while there are genuine business reasons for geo-blocking due to licensing issues, people with access to piracy sources have very little time or sympathy for them. The same is true for DRM on games, which may prevent a certain amount of piracy but only affects legitimate buyers. By their very nature, pirated games come without DRM. It isn’t difficult to see why people feel aggrieved at being punished for being a loyal customer and why excuses for piracy suddenly become justifications.

Justification for piracy is perhaps most keenly witnessed among people who already invest significant sums on official content and media every month but then find themselves backed into a corner on specific items they’d like to experience. With budgets only stretching so far, why would anyone be happy to subscribe to yet another service to access a single TV show ‘exclusive’ when that is all they want from the platform?

Equally, why would someone happily subscribe to a massive TV package in order to access a single channel that gets watched for an hour each week, purely because the TV company insists on selling an overpriced bundle that it refuses to split? Is this a reason to pirate or is it a justification? Indeed, after spending all of their available funds on official media, does accessing this TV channel for free even represent a ‘lost sale’ now?

Like all of the other questions in this niche, the answer is not straightforward. In fact, we’re dealing with a moving target here. Once we determine that this is a lost sale in the example above and then decide to shift the available funds from one company to another, the consumer loses out by paying for things he doesn’t want, loses out by losing access to things that he does, and generally walks away feeling disappointed.

And disappointed customers are bad things. Disappointed customers, those who feel like they’ve been exploited or taken for granted, can turn against companies long-term. Then, as if by magic, their excuses to pirate suddenly become their personal and solid justifications to pirate, which could last for a very long time. But, not only that, it might lead them down the track of paying for even less media, media that they are now particularly militant about obtaining for free.

So, do justifications for content piracy really hold up under scrutiny? Well, it’s a question of personal perspective but broadly, some do and some don’t. Others absolutely don’t, while others are borderline. The argument always remains that if someone has created something the least people can do is pay for it, or not “steal it” in industry parlance. Perhaps the real question is this: does it really make any difference why people pirate to the people who do it?

Multi-billion dollar content companies and smaller players alike already know what they must do to win and maintain business while converting pirates. They have to deliver the best product they can and ensure that the offer is perceived as good value for money by customers. Perhaps most importantly of all, they must never offer a product that is inferior to piracy in any significant way and then, when they have customers on board, they shouldn’t take them for granted.

Because when they do, reasons to pirate are tossed aside and people start to feel justified in not buying the real thing. That’s when the real problems begin.

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