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Culture War Roundup for the week of April 24, 2023

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I’d like to solicit themotte’s thoughts on the ethics of piracy. Specificlly movies, software, and music.

Sharing copyrighted data has been a part of the internet landscape for as long as there has been networked computers. I know it traces back to the bbs days and likely even earlier than that.

Back in the early aughts I was involved in a forum where we would scan for unsecured FTP servers and then fill them with the latest movie music and software releases straight from the groups who actually created and distributed the files. The beauty of this is that you were transferring between commercial networks so the speeds were ludicrous.

This was not long after Napster popularized file sharing and typical online user was very much of the opinion that copying data and sharing it was not equivalent to stealing. Maybe it was the circles I traveled in and my age at the time, but nearly everyone was ethically fine with downloading media. The only reason one wouldn’t do it was that there you needed some minimal level of technical know how to find more than just music on p2p networks. The only folks opposed to it were media corporations, some artists, and a small amount of corporate shills.

Once iTunes, steam, Netflix’s, Spotify, and other commercial options became available, most people stopped file sharing and simply bought media. It was a common to hear the refrain that piracy was a result of lack of access to media online. If there was ease of access and a fair price, most people would be happy to purchase software. This sentiment is still common but I sense it’s become less prominent over the last few years. The streaming environment has become quite fracutured and has impaired both the ease of access and price point for legally consuming media online.

The point of this post is to suggest that people’s opinion on the ethics of media piracy is diametrically opposed to where it was for most of the internets history. The median online opinion that I see is that piracy = theft. Many of these people are young and have been thought from an early age that piracy is not ethical. I suspect that many have also changed their opinion as they age and perhaps are not working at software/medi companies where piracy not affects them directly.

From a personal perspective, I stopped pirating media when iTunes and steam hit the market because it was in fact easier to obtain things legally and I was happy to pay.

That changed about 4 years ago when I realized that I could not in good conscience pay money to Hollywood and leftist game developers. I am happy to pirate their software and steal their movies because the alternative is so distasteful to me. I will occasionally really enjoy something and find the creators to be acceptable enough to support. In those cases I will purchase something after the fact to support people that I agree with. I encourage everyone to do the same. Enforcement of file sharing these days is non-existent. You can pretty much use the the pirate bay without worry and ignore the occasional email from you isp asking you to stop. Though there are many other alternatives out there that don’t take long to find.

The streaming environment has become quite fracutured and has impaired both the ease of access and price point for legally consuming media online.

Really? In the case of audio, Spotify runs $10 a month for access across literally every device I own, including a sport watch for running. This is unfathomably cheap and accessible relative to the CDs I grew up buying to listen to music. I guess television and movies are fractured in the sense that there are many services that include various non-overlapping content, but each of Netflix, Hulu, and so on provide easy access to more content than any person can watch without being a TV junkie.

Either way, my moral intuition was always that it was pretty obviously stealing to pirate music, movies, or software. Whether I was willing to engage in that stealing or not depended on my own financial position, ease of paying legally, and how sympathetic the target was, but I don't think I ever tried talking myself into the idea that it's not stealing. I genuinely have trouble crediting the position that other people hold that it's not stealing as anything other than a rationalization for why they should steal things. To be blunt, I think it can only be sincere in the case of people that are simply too slow-witted to grasp the concept of intellectual property. Most people would have no trouble discerning that theft of their intellectual property is still theft.

For games, major publishers like Ubisoft and Epic have created competing storefronts and pulled software from Steam. At one point, Netflix was a one stop shop. Now there are dozens of competing services. Prices are increasing. Catalogs are thin. Give it some more time for music.

To your other point. I don’t think it’s strictly a matter of rationalization or low iq. Though that is the case for many. There is a sincere group of people that believe data should be free and shared are widely as possible Almost as a terminal goal in and of itself. It may seem ridiculous to us who are steeped in capitalism, but this mindset exists.

And finally, I’ve read plausible explanations that privacy has minimal effect on sales. In most cases, if piracy were off the table, the person would simply just not consume the media. With zero marginal cost to produce an additional product, there is no economic loss.

There is a sincere group of people that believe data should be free and shared are widely as possible Almost as a terminal goal in and of itself. It may seem ridiculous to us who are steeped in capitalism, but this mindset exists.

I don't know that they're wholly incompatible: I enjoy capitalism because it is observably a local maxima in improving quality of life over most command economy alternatives. But in practice this usually means efficient capital investments producing supply-side gains by reducing prices: I can afford a nicer car than my parents had growing up (largely because even entry-level modern cars have better features than a 1993 Honda Civic), better computers (my phone can run circles around a 386DX), and even better media (even terrible streaming platforms are better than 4 fuzzy over-the-air channels).

It's not an immediate goal, but I personally think that anything resembling a post-scarcity society looks on a long time scale like capital investments in scale and efficiency driving prices towards zero. For media in general, the marginal cost of an extra view is effectively zero already, but I look askance at publishers who push mass-market media and aggressively target high profit margins. While Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is interesting as a piece of art, I find its business model pretty repugnant.