Plundering the Internet: Is Internet Piracy Stealing?

With the rise of Napster in 1999, in stormed a new age of digital ownership. Slow to catch on, media labels were left in the dust. Devices like the first Apple iPod necessitated digital music files, and the time, technology and cost associated with ripping CDs made it easy to justify downloading MP3s for songs one already “owned” on disc. Almost without anyone noticing, the era of digital piracy took off. Remarkably, Australians have always had a blasé view on piracy. Remember the ad that played at the start of DVDs? “You wouldn’t steal a car, you wouldn’t steal a handbag” – that one? It had a good point: it’s amazing how many of us don’t consider piracy stealing. Are we wrong? Is piracy just the future of digital content consumption? With the recent landmark Federal Court decision (Dallas Buyers Club LLC v iiNet) on everyone’s minds, let’s address that.

When you buy a book, you purchase the right to consume that book however many times you want. You don’t own the ideas contained within the book, and you don’t own the right to distribute that book in any form (for example by photocopying it, or making a voice recording). Similarly, when you buy an ebook you have the same rights. The difference there is that there is no longer a physical constraint on the content. It is much easier to transfer a .mobi file to your friend’s e-reader than it is to photocopy every page of a hardcover novel. To combat this, many rights owners use Digital Rights Management (or DRM) software to stop consumption of a file by an unauthorised user. Unfortunately, this software often also makes it much harder to consume the content legitimately. If you’ve ever tried to watch a movie you’ve purchased on iTunes for the first time without being connected to the internet (say, on a 12-hour flight) you’ll know what I mean.

The problem comes down to the issue of ownership, and the tension between consumers and rights owners’ conception of that. Streaming services like Netflix and Spotify are beginning to offer a solution to the problem. For a (comparatively) low monthly fee, you can watch unlimited movies on Netflix and listen to unlimited songs on Spotify. These services’ terms are conceptually easy to grasp: consumers understand that they need to continue to pay to listen/watch songs/movies they’ve already seen. Additionally, they remove many of the incentives to pirate. For example, I can hardly say I “just want to try something out” when I can listen to a song on YouTube, or stream a whole album on Spotify. Until recently, market analysts estimated consumer valuation of music at $0 – an inherently bleak view of art and culture, in my opinion. By Spotify’s own calculations, the average value of a US customer (taking into account both free and “Premium” tiers) is US$41/year. This is substantially more than the $25/year spent on average by all US music listeners, one third of whom spend $0/year. When the benefits for artists, producers and consumers is clear, streaming media is sure to become the new norm.

Other internet-age profit strategies have also begun to emerge. Game developer Valve (the company behind hit games Half-Life, Portal, Team Fortress 2, CounterStrike and Dota 2) has adopted the strategy of “free-to-play”. Beginning with the re-release of their hugely successful online multiplayer cartoon shooter Team Fortress 2 (TF2) in 2011, Valve has since released all of their games for free, relying instead on commissions from the sale of digital goods consumers create for each other in-game. This both generates profit for the company, and consumer involvement and interest in the product. Similarly, many games on mobile are now offered for free, deriving their profit instead from advertising and “in-app purchases”.

Australia today is vastly different from the Australia of 1999. The age of digital piracy has forced movies into cinemas and shows onto television at the same time as in the United States, and consumer and government pressure has driven prices (the so called “Australia tax”) down to internationally competitive levels. There is now a plethora of streaming services available: Netflix, Quickflix, Presto, Stan, Spotify, Pandora, iTunes Match, Google Play and the list goes on. Piracy is slowly becoming culturally unacceptable, and while Australia used to be a haven for internet pirates, the recent Federal Court decision means that may no longer be the case. The decision recognises both the infringement on content owners’ rights by consumers as well as the considerable advance in access (outside piracy) available to said consumers. While we may be approaching a time where it is no longer possible to pirate, new innovations in the media landscape mean that it there is no longer a morally unconscionable reason to do so.