Thursday, April 21, 2005

Is Easy Piracy OK?

As I listened to the disc my son had popped into the computer, I was amazed at some of the songs his teenage friends had created. One friend has had one of his songs played on a local university radio station (with a listening audience of over seven people).

My son explained that his friends create music using an application called Fruity Loops Studio that they had downloaded from the Internet. I have a firewall, and I’m one of those control freak dads that makes his kids get permission to download stuff. As my son extolled the virtues of FL Studio, I googled and found the website.

You can download a free trial copy of the Express edition of the application, but it will cost you $49 to make it fully functional. Buying the Fruity edition costs $99, and the Producer edition costs $149. I surmise from product descriptions on the site that my son’s friends are using the most expensive version, possibly with additional “XXL” options that run the price up to $299. If you’re into creating music, this thing looks like a major blast to use.

I told my son that while I would love for our family to have this product, we simply don’t have the resources to buy it right now. He said that one of his friends had downloaded a key generator for FL Studio. That’s when the red flags went up.

A key generator is a cleverly written program that will give you a product key that will fully activate a software application without obtaining a key from an official source; i.e. by paying for it.

I’m hypersensitive on this issue because I work in the software development field and have a special interest in electronic intellectual properties. So I proceeded to lecture my son about laws, ethics, and the eighth commandment, concluding with something like, “We don’t have illegal media in our home!”

The next day I pulled up Windows Media Player and scanned through the library to see what I might want to listen to. I then realized that we had at least one album there that had been ripped from a CD belonging to a friend of my son. Kids nowadays seem to feel that sharing songs is an acceptable pastime. In fact, they see it as a good thing. I sense that many Americans feel the same way.

Few of us would think of walking into a store and pilfering a CD or a software package, but when it’s available electronically we suddenly have no compunction about pulling it down and using it free of charge. After all, one electronic file transfer doesn’t substantially increase the producer’s costs, so there’s really no basis for charging for it, right?

That’s the wrong question. The question should be, “Do I want this enough to pay the price for it?” When someone legally holds something for sale, the only legal and ethical way to obtain it is to pay the required price. If the seller will agree to a discount, that’s great, but there is really no excuse for ripping someone off simply because it is easy.

Researchers have found (requires registration) that pirating software and media stifles innovation and costs jobs. Some countries are working with the Business Software Alliance to strengthen their intellectual property policies so that they can improve domestic innovation and compete in the global marketplace.

Pirating media might reduce our costs and increase our convenience, but in the long run we are hurting the economy and are costing jobs. And despite any slick arguments about ease and overpricing, you simply can’t get around the fact that what you are doing is stealing.


Bradley said...

I agree with your basic premise and moral stance. There are areas of patent and copyright law that could use some work, however. (I’ve written elsewhere on that.) There is a lot of fuzzy area in the law. Let me illustrate with a personal example from work.

I work in an IT department. Some people from our department recently attended some training. The company that provides the training obviously wants others to attend their workshops and buy their material. The people from my department who attended the training received a workbook that contained a printed copy of some PowerPoint slides that were used along with other notes about the content. They also received, upon request apparently, an electronic copy of the PowerPoint slides.

So the question faces us, what can we do with those PowerPoint slides? There seems to be an implicit agreement on the part of the giver that we will show the slides to others. After all, if the participants only needed the information on the slides for their personal use, they already had it in the workbooks that they had purchased—no need for the electronic version. So how many people are allowed to see those slides projected on a wall? Is 10 too many? 100? What if we showed those slides to all 4,000 employees? What if we showed them to 15 people drawn from various companies in the community? Would that be a copyright violation since we will have only used the slides for their intended purpose?

I think you will agree that showing the slides on a projector to 5 people would be well within the boundaries of propriety in this case. What if, instead, I printed the slides out to facilitate a discussion in a room without a projector? Would that be a violation, or would it be “fair use”? Now I have actually duplicated the content that the company would obviously rather sell to me in the form of their own workbooks.

What if I store the PowerPoint presentation on a file server (for my own purposes) where it is also happens to be accessible to other employees? Have I violated the copyright by simply storing the document in a place where others can see it and, by implication, make copies? What does copyright law have to say about my role as a consumer to prevent unauthorized use of material? I don’t know the answer. All I know is that the water is certainly murky. “Intellectual property,” so called, isn’t property at all. When we try to deal with it using the mindset of physical property, the limitations become readily apparently.

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