The Responsible Pirate's Manifesto

by Santiago

With the rise of widespread peer-to-peer file-sharing services, the practice of illegally copying copyrighted works has reached a scale never before seen. However, the legality and the morality of an act are often not the same. Some individuals feel that having a copy of any illicitly obtained copyrighted content is theft, and that theft is wrong no matter the situation. Now, most people would agree that in a situation where their family was starving and food was sold only at obscene prices by a tyrannical monopoly, theft would be morally justifiable. Thus, we see that there exist conditions that make theft of physical objects justifiable. The problem is in finding where to draw the line. With respect to duplication of information, there is a very important distinction with physical appropriation. If I take an object of yours without compensation, you no longer have it--you have less. If I copy your creation without paying you for it, you still have everything you had before, although you do not have any additional payment--you do not have more. Whether or not I was willing to buy the object you had, if I stole it you have a measurable loss. If I copied your intellectual property, but, lacking that option, I would not have bought it, then not only have you not suffered a loss, you have also not failed to realize a gain. If it was something that I could have and intended to buy, only then have you failed to realize a gain.

Thus, by pirating your creation, I am only harming you if I would have bought it otherwise. If I am a fan of your band who is not starving and therefore capable of scraping together $15 to buy your CD, then I am depriving you of your main source of income by downloading it from Napster. If one of your tracks only appears on a $30 import compilation that I am otherwise uninterested in and unwilling to shell out that kind of cash for, then I am not taking any of your income by downloading that track. If I am an avid game player with moderate income, and I pirate your $40 game that I play to completion, then I just took advantage of you. If am a college student and I pirate your $500 graphics program to play around with once a month, you can not call me a lost sale with any degree of credibility. (If I start using it to help run a business on the side where it turns out to be vital, however, then I should cough up the dough.)

The point of this is a that responsible pirates should only take without compensation that which they feel has a cost that is substantially out of line with its value to them. If you are the target market for a product and have the means to pay for it, then pirating it is harming the creator and discouraging future production of similar products. If there's something you'd like but don't need and would never actually pay for, then by all means pirate it; the key point is that here you are doing no harm. You should also be honest with yourself--none of this "Oh, sure I'd pay $40 for that, but $50 is just completely outrageous; let's go hit Morpheus!" Remember that many products will drop in price; if you're not willing to pay the premium that having something now commands, then wait a month or two, or hit used-whatever stores or eBay.

Remember, we're all in this together. If we kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, what'll we do then?

This was initially posted on the utexas.nat-sci.deans-scholars newsgroup (which is not available at news servers not hosted by the University of Texas). It spawned some debate, including an accusation of rationalization by Sebastian Paige (in italics below) and my rebuttal.

Sure we can say if you are starving you can steal and it is justifiable, but you have still committed an immoral act.

I disagree. In the given situation, the producers of food are committing an immoral act by pricing a necessary product at an unreasonable level. Taking the product in question without the requested level of compensation is not only morally justifiable, but a moral imperative. This is not a case of two wrongs making a right, but of righting a wrong.

As far as intellectual property as opposed to physical property. It makes no difference whether someone has lost something or not. If a baker makes too much bread, I can't steal some and say that it would have gone bad anyway. I also can't say that I wouldn't have bought it anyway. The moral wrong about stealing isn't just that you deprived someone of something (money/goods), it is also that you have taken something that doesn't belong to you.

Yes, it does make a difference. The fundamental underlying reason that theft is wrong is that it unjustly deprives an individual of something. There is nothing intrinsically immoral about theft; its immorality is a consequence of the laws of physics and concept of property. Both of these become nebulous with respect to non-physical property.

The company/artist/writer has a right to have control over their intellectual property and you are violating that right. Say you have pictures of your girlfriend or private poetry you only share with loved ones or don't share at all. I have no right to go and photocopy and scan everything to view and show others. You could make the same argument that I deprived you of no money and that you still have the photos, but it is still just plain wrong even if you are unaware that I have copied them.

If I am willing to sell you a copy of some information, then I cannot claim that I wish to keep the information private in any manner. I only want to be compensated for the enjoyment or utility you derive from my labor. If I am unwilling to give a copy of information to you in exchange for any compensation commesurate with the labor involved in its production, then I am clearly placing a value beyond the cost of its production on it. Thus, theft of it is wrong, as through theft you are "stealing" the value I place on its privacy.

Justify it all you want, but stealing is wrong and all you are doing is fooling yourself. Here is my favorite, "I wouldn't cheat if the professor wasn't so unfair." You are trying to tell yourself that what you are doing is okay rather than admitting that you are doing something wrong because it is more convenient than doing something right (buying the stuff you want to watch/listen to). You are also stealing just to entertain yourself. When you realize you want to steal and you are out of real justifications you instead choose to make up your own justifications so you can steal and believe you are a moral person at the same time.

No, I am not rationalizing something I feel is wrong. I am describing that under the value system that I firmly believe, theft which not only does not cause a loss to the purported victim, but also does not prevent them from realizing an expected gain lacks the defining feature that makes traditional theft morally wrong, and thus I have no problem with it.

I think the problem is that stealing has become too easy with computers and you can do it without anyone knowing so you don't have to feel embarrased or worry about being caught. Very few people would walk out of a store with a CD that they had stolen, but the computer has made things so tempting that even otherwise moral people can't resist the temptation and have to justify it to themselves in some way. It sound like I'm preaching, but I say if you are a killer at least admit it to yourself. Don't go around saying that you are trying to solve the over population problem and that they were eating food that a starving child could have had.

I think the problem is that people are treating a fundamentally different substance, data, as a familiar substance, physical objects. Reasoning about different things requires careful analysis to determine when analogies can be reasonably made and when they cannot.

With respect to morality, acts can only be judged in context. I believe that in the right context many acts normally deemed reprehensible, such as theft and murder, and not only excusable, but fully justified. If you attempt to kill me or anyone I care about, I will do my best to kill you immediately. If you escape and demonstrate that you still pose a long-term threat, I will hunt you down and kill you.

This is not to say that I feel all actions can be justified. For some crimes, such as rape, there do not exist a set of circumstances that can justify them. There do exist circumstances that can make them excusable, by which I mean that under such circumstances the perpetrator does not deserve immediate, painful death. Committing a crime under excusable circumstances (generally based on the individual in question having some serious problems that are primarily not their fault and which can be corrected) requires that the offender be placed in treatment to cure them of such sociopathic tendencies, and not placed back into society until they are fully capable of functioning as a reasonable adult human, at which point they are provided with re-integration assistance. (Note that this is different from throwing them down a dark hole for twenty years, then tossing them out on the streets again, as some prison systems seem to do.)

For some crimes, such as killing thousands of innocent people in a terrorist attack, there do not even exist excusable circumstances, and any individuals involved in such need to be deleted immediately. By behaving in such a fashion, they have given up their right to be treated as rational human beings.

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© Andrés Santiago Pérez-Bergquist, All rights reserved. The reproduction of this work, by any means electronic, physical, or otherwise, in whole or in part, except for the purposes of review or criticism, without the express written consent of the author, is strictly prohibited. All references to copyrighted and/or trademarked names and ideas held by other individuals and/or corporations should not be considered a challenge to said copyrights and trademarks.

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