Piracy vs. Theft: The argument beyond the words

Before I pose some questions, let’s glance at what piracy is, and dispel one of the morecosmetic arguments so that we candirectly 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 contextinstead ofthe 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 maytell you),so every argument seems to end with a debate over word choice. Let’s put aside that debateand 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%26rsquo;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'venever downloadedjust onesong you didn't pay for, I commend your honesty). Feel free to call me a filthy thief if you want.

Sept 10, 2008

Associate Editor, Digital at PC Gamer