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Piracy vs. Theft: The argument beyond the words

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Spore’s cumbersome DRM (three installs per copy) has enraged much of the gaming lot, and some cite the restriction as a reason they might download a pirated copy of the game. Unrelated developer Positech recently asked gamers why they pirate games, and sure enough, restrictive DRM was among the biggest complaints. The others were fairly obvious: price, quality, convenience, and so on. The information is useful (and Positech has used the response to guide its policies), but I’d like to know how gamers feel about piracy.

Before I pose some questions, let’s glance at what piracy is, and dispel one of the more cosmetic arguments so that we can directly assault the difficult stuff with our brain guns.

When any kind of digital piracy is mentioned, an argument over the difference between “piracy” and “theft” is inevitable. Legally, “to steal” is to take something out of someone else’s possession, whereas modern piracy is called “IP infringement,” and refers to copying, not taking. Initially, the concept of IP infringement primarily existed to protect copyrighted material from being used for profit, but the 1997 NET Act (US) criminalized the personal use of illegitimately copied intellectual property (music, software, movies, etc.).


Above: The bottom of a classic UK anti-piracy ad which declares that "piracy is theft."

The argument begins when the words “steal” or "theft" are used in the ethical context instead of the legal. If I mentioned a brilliant game idea to a friend, and a day later he sold the idea to EA, I would likely ask him why the hell he “stole” my idea (that bitch). This is why “infringement” and “pirating” are sometimes referred to as “stealing."

But no one likes to be called a thief, and legally, they aren't (despite what the film and music industries may tell you), so every argument seems to end with a debate over word choice. Let’s put aside that debate and discuss the questions that tend to be obscured. Sorry if they sound a bit like writing prompts from a high school English class:

  • If at some point you’ve downloaded a pirated copy of a game (or anything else), do you think that what you did was ethical? If yes, why? If no, why did you do it anyway?
  • Is there a difference between copying the property of an individual (like an indie game dev) and copying the property of a large company?
  • What do you think the long-term implications of wide-scale IP infringement might be?

Note: I'm not here to judge you. I freely admit that I have illegally downloaded and shared protected intellectual property in the past.  Someone created something, asked me to pay for it, and I took a free copy instead. If I’m not mistaken, very many of us have (If you've never downloaded just one song you didn't pay for, I commend your honesty). Feel free to call me a filthy thief if you want.

Sept 10, 2008

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83 comments

  • londonjack - September 15, 2008 3:12 a.m.

    pirating games from a employee who worked on the game is like getting ripped out of money they work for. how would u like to work your ass off for like 3 years and not get the money u deserve.
  • Pencil&Eraser - September 15, 2008 1:40 a.m.

    Yarr.
  • avengingwatcher - September 14, 2008 5:27 a.m.

    You know I MIGHT feel bad for corporations if they weren't ripping off consumers, creators and the like. Corporations take money from our taxes and then cut benefits which we then have to pay for when people don't make a living wage. When this becomes a fair world cry t me about piracy. My personal rules about piracy are this, if I have the money...I had money at one point, I buy it. Usually I will try to find a legal copy first, then a demo...after that I dl it if I really really want it but can't afford to buy it, so would never be putting money towards it. I do not and will not ever steal from someone who does not put DRM on their software, they are putting trust in us and making the gaming experience better and are rewarded, Stardock I am looking at you, I do not steal from companies that actually need to money(A corporation that can afford to pay million dollar salaries to failing CEO's by cutting workers does not garner my sympathy.) Movies I don't pirate because I don't have enough time and watch them on dvd anyways and music is easy to find legally and cheap enough to buy legally now. I personally did not purchase Mass effect or spore based on DRM and will probably steal a cracked version on principle when if they hadn't been such assclowns breaking legal software they would've had my money, instead I went for the less draconian Assassin's Creed, which though a nice game is hardly worth the money I paid for it. 20 hours of gameplay for 40 bucks? cmon....I remember Baldur's Gate. and AC isn't even moddable. It's one thing to charge 40 bucks for a game with replay value and totally another to charge that for a romp with almost nothing new. So bullet point format 1.I don't/won't steal if there is a legal alternative i.e. Hulu, pepsipoints, Amazon.com, Stardock etc. 2. If it has insane DRM I won't buy based on principle, why should I buy if I am treated like a criminal, kinda like XP when I upgraded my mobo and it said my copy of xp was no longer legal because I changed my hardware...ummm duh I upgraded.... 3. If people are stealing from you and it is legal why should I care if they are getting the same treatment...seriously when RIAA screws the artists and then cry about how people are ripping them off am I supposed to shed a tear...don't be dicks and most people will pay... or end up like mettalicock a band that tanked because they didn't know which side of the battle they should be on. Point of fact, sales were higher during the Napster era because people were buying more music than afterwords. Maybe if corporations would practice what tehy preach people wouldn't have to steal...douchebags
  • Fatshit - September 13, 2008 9:28 p.m.

    right on...dino77cro !!!
  • dino77cro - September 13, 2008 9:09 p.m.

    really people?? poor companyes need to pay off develop costs??? are you retared? companyes pay them off very easiliy if its a good game, they want to make millions of dollars in profits to put them in their owners pockets witch is their right but isnt the same as paying develop costs so lets fell sorry for them!!! and now to adress piracy... in the past when u bought something like a coat you could do anything with it because it was your, right??? well what is the diference today? i buy a game or music or a move and then its mine right? well no!!! there are a whole lot of things i cant do with it... how is this logical? i payed for it, its mine no company should be able to tell me what to do with something thats mine!!! thats why piracy is ok!!! they pirate for us first(telling us what should we do with our property), why shouldent we be able to do the same thing? now some smartypants r gonna say well a coat isnt the same thing as a game, guess what? it is!!! its a product, end of disscution.
  • Helios_Five - September 13, 2008 3:24 p.m.

    Also as Nemiswes points out it is stupid to pay for the same game twice becauce you want it to work on your console. I mainly buy PC games becauce I want to play mods if available and such things prevent me from buying console games.
  • Helios_Five - September 13, 2008 3:19 p.m.

    As I see it publishers lose little money. When I pirate a game it is becauce I have no intention of spending that money on games. Had I not pirated the game no money would have gone to the publisher anyway. Still 2/3 of my games are bought in the end. If I pirate a game that I feel deserves recognition and money for originality and a good crafted product I generally try to pick up the game from a retailer, as well as tell my friends to buy it (Not pirate it) thus generating free advertisment. Morally this is still a tricky question but practically the producers lose little money since most of that money would never end up in their hands anyway. I would think this goes for most piracy. Then there are other reasons, I would gladly pirate Spore since I haven't gotten it to work and the DRM is an atrocity. But that is mainly becauce I want to hurt EA games financially, thus I urge my friends to pirate the game til there are some patches. I have bought many of their games and they have always been shoddy with patching. I would much rather give my money to the artist than an organisation who exploits him and damages his work. Third reason I sometimes pirate is availability, it is often difficult to get a hold on old games like Fallout and these times my laziness gets the better of me. I would pay the developers if it was made easier as long as pricing is not off the whack.
  • CandiedJester - September 12, 2008 11:01 p.m.

    @Slapme7Times You missed my point. I was saying if you make it illegal to buy/sell used games, you would have to make it illegal to buy/sell ANYTHING used. And that would not benefit anyone. You say it's wrong to sell anything used because the companies that made those things get no profit. I understand that. BUT.. I still fail to see where they go wrong. And I fail to see where this is "hurting us all". Imagine if it was made illegal to buy/sell used things, like you want, and just think off all the businesses that would be forced to shut down. Gamestops, used car dealers, antique shops, used clothes stores, pawn shops, ebay, ect. That's a huge spike in unemployment right there. Plus what would happen to all their merchandise? Well, it certainly couldn't be SOLD. God forbid. So what then? Thrown away? Given away? Well it certainly couldn't be traded for, seeing as the buisiness no longer exists, and even if it was than they would be stuck with a bunch of traded stuff that they don't need-but cannot get rid off. It would be economic suicide. (hmm..or maybe not. If everyone WAS forced to buy only new things, hey, that may actually HELP the economy. O_o) ((But it still certainly wouldn't help pollution/clutter or unemployment rate.)) And even if it was still legal to borrow/trade games, how is buying a used game any different than borrowing a game from a friend. Either way the game company makes no profit, yet the person gets to play the game. O_o.. See, These businesses are only there for everyones convenience and efficiency. They provide a service, and deserve to get paid for it. Just like everyone else. And if you still think it's wrong, then don't shop there. Simple as that. And like I said before, if these used business were a threat to all these companies, something would have been said long ago. You know I'm actually glad you brought up this point though, I'd never thought of it that way before. It's a very interesting point of view.
  • ClusterShart - September 12, 2008 4:54 p.m.

    What do you think the long-term implications of wide-scale IP infringement might be? The internet will implode... nothing on here is truly original
  • GamesRadarJoeMcNeilly - September 12, 2008 3:51 p.m.

    @a9bejo: actually, that is definitely helping =)
  • ArigusX207 - September 12, 2008 2 p.m.

    I generally pirate things that will work better pirated than not, for example... anything with game crippling DRM or StarForce (*shudders*). In general, I buy games because I support the gaming industry, and it's going to be a major part of my future employment, so I really don't want it to crash. On the other hand, I do not support DRM. If I buy a game, I want to be able to do what I want with it. I think that putting DRM or any other sort "Rights Management" system that keeps you from having complete freedom with your own property is unethical, so I support (imho), the lesser of the two unethicals and pirate. BTW, I never pirate from indie games or smaller companies, thats just dirty. In short, I don't pirate because I don't want to pay for things, I pirate because I want to be able to freely use the things that I pay for.
  • slapme7times - September 12, 2008 1:51 a.m.

    @ Candiedjester Obviously selling used games would become illegal anywhere. Ebay, Pawn shops, etc. The concept is not that people don't trade and let each other borrow games (because they always will) it's that you destroy the middleman raping consumers and publishers alike. If you let a friend borrow a game, that's fine, and it should be completely legal, but a corporation should not be allowed to profit off of the used game industry. It's hurting us all.
  • hot_shot90 - September 12, 2008 12:32 a.m.

    Yeah but the company owns the game, the artists is but a part of the team. The company who funds and makes the profit off of us, I think abuses, with these prices we see every day. If this was really art, it would not depreciate so quickly and outrageously
  • FSK405K - September 11, 2008 11:38 p.m.

    I've downloaded quite a few games illegally, but none since 1999 or so (except ROMs). I am planning on downloading a cracked version of Spore, WHICH I OWN (Galactic Edition), though, just to avoid all the spyware/online restrictions/etc. As soon as someone, whether EA or some kid in a dorm, lets me do the online content while avoiding using SecuROM, I'll be able to finally install and play Spore, not until. Whether illicit downloading is ethical depends on the context. If you mean downloading a game recently released to avoid paying money, obviously no. But if the game is rare, no longer available, or was never released in your region, I fail to see how you are violating ethics. I have been willing for years to pay for a legitimate English copy of Dragon Quest VI in the US, for instance, but, since Square-Enix might release it here in late 2009 or in 2010, I'll settle with my downloaded copy until then. The difference between copying the property of an individual (like an indie game dev) and copying the property of a large company depends on personal relationships and the opinion of the company: * Won't copy if know the guy or someone in the company * Won't copy if think company is good * Will copy if don't know the guy or anyone in the company * Will copy, possibly just for spite, if know the guy is a jerk or think/know the company is full of jerks The implications of widespread IP infringement are too complicated for an online comment. If you mean in the area of games, though, it will mean the closure of large development studios and the loss of multi-million dollar games. Oh no, no more movie tie-ins! There will be more small, nimble, creative companies like Introversions and Ironclad Games instead. On the bright side, I would expect more loose copy-protection like that used by Stardock and, to a lesser degree, Valve. Final point: * Will copy if no demo available, especially at release date--not just PC games, consoles too.
  • CandiedJester - September 11, 2008 10:57 p.m.

    @xaKIRA96 Really? awesome. I must know more! *runs off to google him*
  • XAkira96 - September 11, 2008 10:10 p.m.

    Ya know, just to balance out the smart-arse comments.
  • XAkira96 - September 11, 2008 10:09 p.m.

    YAAARRRRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!!
  • CandiedJester - September 11, 2008 10:07 p.m.

    Ok. I'll give you my answers to those questions now. BUT They aren't necessarily my whole thought out opinion. Just the first thing that came to mind. 1) Do I think it was right? Well. To music, I'm going to have to say I think (technically) it is wrong, but I don't FEEL like I'm doing anything wrong when I download it. I say that because it feels wrong for me to pay for a song that I can listen to on the radio, myspace, ect for free. And it's not like I don't want to support the bands and musicians I "steal" from. I really do want to support them, but I'd rather do that by going to concerts and buying merchandise and such. To games, I would feel alot differently about if I pirated them. Because games are alot more expensive, and alot more time and work goes into making them. Also to those talking about pirating games to "try it out" first, well, that's what reviews, screenshots, videos, ect are for. One of the very reason this site exists. I think you'd know enough about a game before buying it to know if you would like it or not. I know I do. And if you don't, then rent it. Simple enough. (Wait..can you rent PC games?? O_o sorry I'm not a PC gamer.) 2) No. Why should they be any different? Money doesn't make one any more important than the other. I won't answer the last question, simply because I don't understand it >.<.. So yeah. I hope nothing came out wrong. And I reserve the right to change my opinion! @Ravenbom Thanks. And I don't even know who/what candidejester is XP..Actually this was kind of a random name. I was in a jester stage, after The Dark Knight, when I discovered Harley Quinn ^.^ And what's voltaire? O_o *feels stupid* Also good point about the collecting thing. I think that's why they started making "special editions". Speaking of special editions, I preordered the special edition of Fallout 3 ^^ I can't wait to display my little vault boy bobblehead : D lol. But see if they put something in EVERY game I don't think it would do much good. What's the point in collecting something that everyone else in the world who bought the game already has. Even if it wasn't for collecting, but simply a toy, Well that would still seem a bit superfluous to me.
  • MacGyver1138 - September 11, 2008 9:53 p.m.

    I personally have downloaded a couple of games, but it's usually old/hard to find games that I couldn't buy somewhere. That's why I am looking forward to Good Old Games so much. It is very rare that I pirate a game that is new, because I really appreciate what developers do, and I want to support that. I also avoid used games when I can afford to, because I know that those don't benefit the developers either. Screw Gamestop! I also download music, but the difference with that is that if I didn't download it, I almost certainly wouldn't buy it, and that's not true of games for me. Actually, I would say that if I download some music and really like it, I am more likely to purchase that band's music than if I had never listened to it, so piracy in this case is benefitting the music industry. That seems weird, but I just typically don't care enough about music to go buy CD's the same way I do with games.
  • a9bejo - September 11, 2008 9:44 p.m.

    "The reality of course is quite a bit more nuanced" Sorry, I know I'm not helping, but http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/103759/ ;)

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