The Ethics of Piracy

Jeff Biron


            The software industry has to deal with the threat of piracy and its impact of their business.  While the activity is generally seen as illegal, I will explore the ethical implications of software piracy and its effects in two cases.  First, that of the pirate that seeks to sell their pirated software, and the second case of pirated software obtained freely.

            Today, it isn’t hard to imagine pirating software, and sometimes we may even do it without giving it a second thought.  With the current ease of piracy you can expect that some people will seek to turn a profit on pirated software.  Consider someone who copies an application developed by a large company and decides that this product is way over-priced and should be available for a much lower price.  With this in mind, our pirate begins creating and distributing copies of the application at their new, adjusted price.  Of course, it is easy to see that this sort of activity is illegal, since they are reselling copyrighted material, which they have illegally copied, but what about the ethical implications.  The pirate in this case may think they are ethically right for providing the product at a price that they feel it should be sold at.  They may even seem a little noble for doing so, after all, they are protecting the consumer, right?  This case is actually a very weak argument to present piracy as ethical.  Even though on the surface it may seem that the pirate is doing the ‘right’ thing, if they were really concerned about the price wouldn’t it be more prudent to contact the company?  Of course, that won’t get you far, because the company prices products according to what they believe they can sell them for.  If they do not sell, then obviously they are overpriced, so why should the pirate be ethically correct in adjusting this price to what they believe it should be?  Of course, they aren’t ethically correct in doing so.  If they were really committing piracy because the product was overpriced, it is logical to assume that they should give all of the money made through selling the pirated product to the publisher, which I doubt they would consider.  I do not believe that there can be any sort of ethical justification given for the selling of pirated software in any case.  The fact that the pirate seeks to profit from the piracy seals off any form of ethical argument for their acts.

            There is another point to consider in this type of piracy.  If a company discovers the existence of a pirate who is selling their product and choose not to take action, how do the ethics now apply?  Suppose the company does not take action because the legal expenses would cost more than they would be losing to the pirate.  In this case it is better for the company financially to allow the pirate to continue, but does this make the piracy ethically right?  I believe this does alleviate some of the ethical wrong of the software pirate, but not completely.  Since they are continuing to harm the company when they need not do so, they are still unethical in their actions.  The company, however, must share some of the blame for allowing the piracy to continue.  Perhaps it is not economically sound to present legal action against the pirate, but doing so may have unseen effects.  Making an example of a pirate could reduce piracy in general and would certainly start to give the company a reputation for not tolerating piracy of its products, which could be beneficial in the long run.  Ethically, the company is also wrong because they are allowing the unethical act of piracy to occur when they are able to take action to stop it.  Therefore, in a situation such as this, the act of pirating a product is still an unethical act.

            The second type of piracy is that in which software is obtained freely.  Pirates may override whatever form of copy protection exists and distribute a product free of charge.  Whether simply sharing software among friends, or providing it online for all to acquire, this sort of piracy differs from the first type in its ethical ramifications.  Probably the premier argument for this type of piracy is that the companies aren’t losing anything.  This argument comes in two brands, the first is that they wouldn’t have purchased the product anyways and the second is that the sticker price is adjusted to account for piracy.  The “I wouldn’t have bought it anyways” argument is probably the strongest you can present to attempt to consider this sort of piracy ethical.  If you wouldn’t have purchased the pirated product, then you aren’t hurting anybody, right?  Of course, you are using a product that money was invested to develop and that individuals spent time to work on.  The company should receive payment for providing you with the product to use.  If you wouldn’t have bought it, yet you are using it, it shows that you would like the product.  Therefore, you should purchase it so the company can receive compensation for you use of the product.  By using the product without compensating the publisher, you are committing an unethical act.  The second brand of the argument is more easily dealt with.  If you assume that companies price products higher in order to account for piracy and that this justifies obtaining the product for free, then you are clearly wrong.  If you did not obtain it for free, and nobody else did, then the company would not have to adjust the price at all.  Using the effect of an unethical act to justify it is not a strong argument, therefore this case is unethical in terms of piracy.

            So when might this sort of piracy ever be considered ethical?  There is at least one case that can be shown, where the piracy is not wholly unethical.  Many times, when products are pirated and freely distributed, the users are given the suggestion that if they like the software then they should purchase their own copy.  In a case where this happens, the company may have actually gained from having the software pirated.  Allowing users to demo software for free can expand the user base for the software.  Even if they would not purchase the current product, they may be satisfied enough to purchase the company’s next product.  The problem with this is that it is not enforceable.  Using a pirated piece of software as a ‘preview’ is solely up to the user.  Nothing prevents them from continuing to use the pirated software, so there will be those who do not use the pirated product as it was intended.  Since the effects can be adverse even if the intentions were good, this must be considered a case of an unethical act in piracy.

            This leads up to the question of what can be done about software piracy?  Surely the pirates know they are doing wrong, but is this truly the case?  In Stephen Poole’s article entitled “PC Pirates” he quotes a pirate who goes by the name of Crisis.  Crisis states, “Selling pirated games is illegal and immoral for sure, and I think pretty much anyone from the scene will agree with that.  We're about giving people a chance to check out software without paying large amounts of money for it. Personally, I pay for very little software, but if there's something I use regularly, and it's priced right, I may buy it.”  Clearly the community recognizes that reselling of a pirated game is bad, but there doesn’t seem to be the same feeling about the acquisition of software for free.   It would seem that Crisis falls into the group that considers the pirated software to be a demo, but in his statement Crisis makes a point to note that he will buy it “if it is priced right.”  Clearly the point then is to avoid paying for software.  If that is the case, then the pirates should believe that all software should be free.  If that were the case, then there would be no software since there would be nothing to pay for development costs, and nothing for a company to gain by developing software.  It now seems clear that, in any form, piracy is unethical, so what measures can be taken to prevent it?  Copy protection methods have evolved along with piracy, but there is never a method hat is completely secure.  For each new copy protection scheme there is a new way around it.  That leaves companies with legal action against pirates.  The Digital Millennium Copyright Act now empowers companies to have a basis to take legal action against piracy.  Using the act, companies can now subpoena internet service providers to turn over information on their users.  This now allows companies to take a firm stand against piracy and protect their products.

















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