Digital Pirates: How Piracy Changes Consumerism for Good

If you’ve lived through the early days of the internet and beyond, chances are you have indulged yourself in some innocent internet piracy. Chances are that you have seen the rise and fall of Napster and enjoyed the way it helped you discover new music and download it for free. The industry went head over heels in taking down these early but widespread signs of a consumer revolution, misreading that piracy is not only an inevitable part of our society but way more than that. While pirating content is a real crime with real-world consequences, it has had effects on the way we all consume goods for the better. However, it still poses great challenges to established industries that resist changing the status quo.

“You wouldn’t steal a car.” – Slogans the movie industry used to convince people that pirating movies is bad. And to a certain extent, they were right. Stealing intellectual property is theft on a very basic level, made incredibly easy with modern-day technologies. However, internet piracy as a whole is not to be compared with physically stealing a CD off the counter. Piracy is a movement and community that incorporates almost revolutionary notions of a decentralized system of goods distribution. A system where the consumer is in control about what he consumes where, when, and how – transcending traditional boundaries set by major corporations that run a monopoly on movies, music, and video games.

This is not to ignore the criminal notions for getting access to a product for free, but an appeal to embrace piracy not as a community of thugs, but as a competing business, challenging established ways of distributing goods.

What We Can Learn from Online Piracy

Piracy happens everywhere, not just online. Everything that gets copied without explicit permission of the rights owner is piracy. Be it Chinese knock-off products, copied T-shirt prints or torrent downloads. Piracy often goes beyond copying though, with people using original content and creating improved or entirely new products. Piracy can, and often does, end in creative output which in turn can actually propel products forward. In fact, it already has.

Taking ideas and inventions and being able to legally use them, while sharing your own results afterward. That’s Open Source. Open Source is that very concept the internet itself is based on, that sites like Wikipedia use to give users complete control to alter, police, and enhance content.

Services like Napster, even though illegal, were not just great services on the surface. They granted new freedoms to their users. The freedom to discover things they like and consume them at their leisure. A concept that eventually gave birth to modern-day streaming services. In fact, Netflix uses piracy statistics to determine what content to bring to their services next. This is one of the prime examples why piracy, no matter the harm it does, shouldn’t just be condoned but competed with.

Understanding Torrenting Pirates

Piracy can have different motivators and understanding them is essential to figure out how to develop the future of consumerism. Sure, there are people that just want to have stuff for free. But that is not true for the whole lot of them. Most people resorting to piracy are actually people with enough money to buy products if they manage to strike a good balance of price, quality, and accessibility.

Game of Thrones, for example, is the most pirated TV show online. The reasons are manifold, but one distinct issue was the distribution model with new episodes only being available in certain markets. HBO has since changed their approach to piracy and chose to embrace it rather than to condone it. They have also made sure to change their distribution model, making services like HBO GO available and offer translated versions worldwide faster than they used to.

If we ignore the criminal component of piracy, it often boils down to people breaching barriers imposed by the companies that restrict their content or flat-out censor it in certain markets. That’s why companies like Netflix are becoming increasingly popular while torrenting traffic has been on a steady decline. The free availability of entertainment for a fixed price may not be the most profitable model for movie companies, especially compared to the good old times, but it’s what the market demands. Piracy is often just an expression of a transcendent demand, one that the people will just take themselves if it’s not given to them. And, historically, those who embraced this trend and actively competed with it, such as Netflix and HBO, have found great success.

But isn’t Piracy still Theft?

Yes, yes it is. However, the actual harm of that practice is highly questionable. Companies that used to profit heavily just a couple of decades ago gladly blamed piracy for their dwindling sales. But as we said earlier, most pirates are normal citizens with money that they will spend on the products they like. Instead of trying to understand their end consumers properly and to adapt to the new age of technology, most companies have overreacted and placed sometimes ridiculous barriers on their products.

DRM copyright protection that makes it incredibly hard to share and even use the bought product often feels like a punishment for the consumer by a company that still hasn’t come to terms with change. Those DRM measures are only harming consumers in the end, as the piracy community quickly finds ways to circumvent it, leaving regular and law-abiding citizens with additional restrictions they shouldn’t have to deal with. This alone can fuel piracy statistics.

The punchline to all this? Piracy may not even have a significant impact on the actual revenue of music, movies, and games. A suppressed report ordered by the European Union, with the intention to show how much money is lost due to piracy, apparently couldn’t find any provable correlation between piracy and dwindling sales.

The truth: the times of companies being in charge is over. It is time to start a consumer-centric industry that listens to its customers and makes it easier, not harder, to enjoy their products at their leisure.

About Andreas Salmen

Born and raised in Germany, learned a job in IT and Business and ultimately decided that this wasn't exactly where my life was going to end. Left everything behind to become a writing backpacker instead. The world's crumbling away anyway so why not write about it and get a few good Instagram pics on the way, am I right?

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