Blog: Are You A Pirate?

Lagrange asks some difficult questions      22/04/14

Blog: Are You A Pirate?

Buying Choices

Blogger Lagrange Audio Writes:

"Are you a pirate...?"

Let's face it you probably have been at one stage or another in your digital life. For younger readers was the temptation just too great, peer pressure perhaps? For older ones your digital life probably started a long time ago and so the law of averages states over that time period you probably were at least confronted with the opportunity.

If you were to push me on this, my standard answer has always been, yes I tried marijuana in college, but I never inhaled. One of the common misconceptions these days is to assume that software or media piracy is a recent phenomenon. Nothing could be further from the truth. From the very day that tech-savy consumers were confronted with something that could be duplicated the game was on. And it's not just in the realm of copying the contents of one floppy disk to another.

How many times did you record TV shows on your VHS recorder? How many mix tapes did you make to play on your compact cassette player? All of that was illegal, in legalise it "infringed" on someone's copyright or was "unauthorised". I remember my parents buying our first VHS machine and from the moment we pressed record for the first time we were as complicit as everyone else, that was 33 years ago.

The point I am opening with here is right from the get go the massive disconnect that still exists between consumers and industry was created in earnest. Using the VHS example once more it was standard industry practice in its very early days to display a legal statement before a broadcast. They gave up on that tactic very quickly because it just became a pointless exercise. The only time you see it now is for major TV events where significant commercial partners are involved. It was plastered all over the London 2012 Olympic broadcasts for example.

Now I will ask you another question based on the assumption that you were quietly honest enough to admit to yourself that at some point you were confronted with the opportunity to use an unauthorised copy of a product. I use that word deliberately as it is at the core of the definition of software and media piracy. Interestingly enough 'authorised' doesn't necessarily mean 'paid for'. Conversely that becomes an important point today in the realm of a number of web sites that charge for what is clearly an illegal download. In this scenario the creator gets nothing for their efforts.

So the next question I ask you is "Are you a criminal?" I would expect a resounding "No" from the majority and it is tempting to dismiss this response were it not for a further analysis of the reasons why, for example:

1) I downloaded it but wasn't interested in it, I did not like it so I deleted it immediately

2) I am really interested in it but it's way too expensive

3) I couldn't get access to it any other way

4) Well, I'm not using it commercially so that's OK right?

5) I just wanted to learn how to use it

6) I'm just a little guy so no big deal

7) I'm just a hobbyist or enthusiast

8) No-one is getting hurt here, the creator is still making reasonable coin

9) Isn't me just downloading it and listening, watching or using it just free marketing for the creator?

10) Everything on the Internet should be free!!

11) I already pay for my Internet service and computing device so why should I pay again?

12) My employer bought a copy so I use it at home as well

And the list goes on. Now my next challenge to set you is to rate, in your opinion, the validity of each of the above. I am reasonably confident that beyond #1 (the instant dismissal) you would rate #2, #3, #5, #6, #7 and #8 pretty highly, which brings me to my next observation. I maintain as an individual that has had access to a computer since 1984 that the vast majority in their daily lives are in fact good law abiding citizens. You don't speed in your car, you pay your bills on time, you treat people around you courteously and with respect, you do volunteer work and help out in some way in your local community and so on.

The fact is that even with this solid moral and ethical grounding that we have, we are still able to justify in some way an unauthorised download. This then leads on to another conclusion which is that in any category of criminal activity the truly and deliberately malicious will always be there somewhere. It's what I loosely refer to as the 'criminal threshold' and it has always been in the minority.

Is it too simplistic therefore to assume that in the illegal download arena the real criminals are also in the minority, you decide. To use a drug trade analogy we recognised long ago that going after users isn't going to solve the many social problems caused by drugs, that's why we go for the dealers. In fact in many jurisdictions now we are de-criminalising the use of soft drugs because the effort required to maintain those aspects of the legal code are simply too high. What we are seeing, which I think will be mirrored in the piracy debate, is that the users are no longer considered criminals. Again back to our assertion comparing other criminal activities, the real criminals are clearly in the minority.

So assuming then that rest of us are not criminals wouldn't it be fair to understand the various reasons why we download a little more? I'm going to use my country, Australia, to highlight (not necessarily condone) why some of the reasons above are considered valid by many people and hopefully explain some of the things that the underlying industries involved need to consider. I choose Australia quite deliberately as it is an interesting microcosm that can be used for this debate.

It is high-tech, it has one of the highest pro-rata rates of Internet access, device usage, illegal downloads and VPN tunneling anywhere in the world. It is also a country that is considered by many to be at the mercy of the so called "Australia Tax" which adds something like 30% to 50% on the price of products purchased online here compared to other countries like the US for example. So contentious is this issue that last year our Federal Government commissioned a Senate inquiry to explore the reasons why.

There is no doubt that consumers here are asking questions. Any media that is purchased on iTunes for example costs about 40% more than purchased from the US store, which explains the very high rates of VPN tunneling and illegal downloads. In one absurd example it was shown that the boxed version of Adobe Photoshop (before they changed their pricing policy) could be purchased cheaper in LA by hopping on a plane from Sydney than buying it from a local reseller. So price was an important factor raised by this inquiry.

The industry's response to this when challenged was that prices reflected the additional cost of doing business here in terms of marketing, physical stores and so on. The inquiry's response to this was pretty much 'bollocks' when online purchasing alone was considered. In fact they asked why should the cost of a digital download, beyond currency exchange factors and local tariffs, be so markedly different and it was interesting to note that the final price is set by vendors, not by government in our situation.

The other issue highlighted was availability and that really came to the fore this week with the premiere of the latest season of a popular US TV series featuring swords, dragons, some violence, harsh language and some measure of nudity. No prizes for guessing what we are talking about here. However, due to an exclusive deal between our only Pay-TV provider whose subscriptions are very much in the minority, and the producers of the show, all other paid services are locked out until the season concludes. To say this raised the ire, of once again, largely law abiding people would be an understatement. It is also no surprise to suggest that while the Pay-TV channel concerned claimed 315,0000 viewings over two showings of the first episode that likely illegal downloads exceeded this figure. For the record I have no way of knowing for sure. One clear message was heard however from non-subscribers, I want to buy it, why can't I now or when I want?

Source: Mashable

So how can we summarise of all this? Well, assuming that our previous statement that the vast majority are not criminals, what is clear is that people are prepared to pay and want to pay IF the price is reasonable and comparable, AND the product is available.

I struggle to understand why industry in general has a problem with this. If the ecosystem in general is represented by a Venn diagram I suspect there is very little cultural overlap between the two entities involved. Also in any contentious debate surrounding an issue it is always about understanding and compromise. Assuming industry at large comes to the party, as a consumer, if you want it and can pay, you should pay.

What also occurs to me as the world in general continues to come to grips with this debate is the fact that the music tech industry specifically is generally leading the way. In terms of price and availability I cannot think of many operators out there that do not tick these boxes. When was the last time a music tech software vendor geo-blocked a release or charged hugely disparate prices depending on where you live? In the vast majority of cases the products are powerful, attractive, reasonably and comparably priced and immediately available on release. It has been the one sector that was the first to back away from the idea of putting up the barricades and instead focused on giving people what they want, when they want it and at the right price. The rest of the music and broadcast industry could learn a lot from this.

The goal is to lower the rate of illegal downloads as close as possible to the criminal threshold with the strategies above then use a completely different approach to target those below the threshold. Unfortunately industry to date has taken a blunt instrument as an alternative to working with their customers both currently paying and those that want to pay in the right environment. The worst part being that even those who are paying now are being punished with the same blunt instrument.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of a personal contributor and may not reflect those of

Jason Durbin (aka Lagrange Audio) has been a synth and music tech enthusiast for 30 years since getting his hands on his first synth in 1983 at the tender age of 16. He hasn't earned a single Aussie dollar from music but the journey has been nothing short of incredible and he has met and interacted with some amazing people along the way. Jason is a true enthusiast doing it for nothing more than the pure love of it.


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