1. Studies say pirates pay for more content than people who don’t pirate. Those studies are old, small, and of dubious methodology, involving self-reported data. Of course, none of the people who constantly invokes them cares to look at them too closely. They are believed because they tell people what they want to hear. But even if this claim is true, it doesn’t prove what the people who say it think it proves. The question is, do these pirates pay enough to replace the revenues that are lost to the system, as a whole, from piracy? And given the way that the music industry’s revenues have cratered, and the ongoing slowdown in the movie industry, the answer appears to be no.
(If pirates download $500 a month worth of digital content on average, and spend $100 a month on digital content, and those who don’t pirate spend only $50 a month, then yes, the pirates pay for more content. But the system still loses the revenue that the pirates would have paid for the things they pirated.)
2. People only torrent things that are not available for purchase. Just entirely, demonstrably untrue. Go to any torrent site and look at the number of downloads of movies, albums, and games that you can easily purchase in any number of ways. If you really are looking for something you simply can’t get your hands on otherwise, go with God, I won’t judge you.
3. I only torrent because legal alternatives are so expensive and inconvenient. You can legally download millions of movies, books, albums, and games, at cut-rate prices, from dozens or hundreds of sellers, directly into the device you’re going to be using them on, usually without having to be at home or plugged in to anything at all. The amount of incredibly cheap content you can buy now is breathtaking, with constant sales and a relentless downward pressure on prices. This complaint has not changed one iota in five, ten, or fifteen years, despite the fact that the conditions on the ground have totally changed. The goal posts just get moved; the more convenient and cheaper the legal avenues become, the harder the pirates are to please. (I’ve literally had people angrily tell me that $9.99 for an album is an “outrageous” amount!)
4. We need IP reform. Totally true. Irrelevant to the moral question of whether you should pay the people who make the media you love for their work.
5. Pirates go on to pay for things that they’ve torrented if they like them. Pirates say they pay for things that they like, after the fact, but there’s no evidence to believe that this is true writ large. Even if that’s true, it’s totally unworkable as a business plan. A world where you only have to pay for the art and media that you’ve consumed if you decide that you like it after the fact is a world where art and media die as professional phenomena.
6. If the music/movie/publishing/video game industries still made good stuff, I’d pay for it! See above. People sure seem to torrent award-winning stuff a lot. It’s not actually true that music now is so much worse and even if it were that wouldn’t mean you’d be entitled to get it for free.
7. I only torrent things I wouldn’t have seen/listened to/read/played otherwise. This is non-falsifiable. There’s no way to prove this is true. It seems highly unlikely given how many of the biggest, most popular properties are torrented endlessly. You can’t be nearly as certain about what you wouldn’t have otherwise paid for when you regularly get things for free.
8. The music industry/movie industry/publishing industry makes money hand over fist! They can afford it! All three of those industries have seen major losses of revenue. This argument is made totally independent of any facts. Perfectly independent observers and experts who have no love for the industry groups involved have come to the same conclusions. The notion that the idea of declining revenues in these industries is all a conspiracy is tinfoil hat nonsense.
9. You’re just a shill for the RIAA/MPAA/etc.! That is not an argument. It’s also not true. I hate the heavy-handed tactics of these industry organizations, and I find things like DRM and suing individual downloaders to be wrongheaded and counterproductive. But I think paying people for the hard work and inspiration they invest in making the art and media we enjoy is a simple and important principle.
10. Piracy only steals from the big names, which levels the playing field for the little guy. Literally the opposite is true. As Astra Taylor demonstrates in her magnificent book The People’s Platform, and as Jaron Lanier has also argued, it’s in fact those on the bottom who suffer the worst– the experimental artists, the independent sellers, the middle class workers who have made money in ancillary positions in creative fields. Those at the top can sell their celebrity, making money from endorsements; those on the bottom find it harder and harder to make interesting, experimental, daring work.
11. Evolve or die!/These industries need to find new models/Businesses need to adapt to a changing world/etc. Which new models? Evolve how? Change in what way? Simply saying “you have to change” is not a plan. The implication that there is some obvious plan for monetization out there that is not susceptible to endless digital copying has not been backed up by any actually expressed plan. The ways that these industries have actually changed to recoup lost revenues — more product placement, “free to play,” advertising, microtransactions — are universally hated by the self-same people who advocate torrenting.
12. Torrenting is a victimless crime that has no impact on the industries in question. How can that be true? We know that millions of people torrent. We know that they download billions of files. How could it be the case that all of this has no economic impact? Yes, it’s true: there are executives in these industries that get paid. Yes, it’s true: there are stock holders who make some of these money. That’s true. But it’s also true that the creators themselves depend on the profitability of these properties. And not just to get paid themselves, either, but to be able to make more movies, albums, books, and games in the future. You cannot wiggle out of this fact: when you don’t pay for the media you consume, you are ultimately depriving the people who work hard to make the art you love.
Think about the “evolve or die” claim: what if the result is “or die”? What does it mean to you as someone who loves to pirate if these industries do die? You get a lot less of the art and media that you love. This is the most frustrating, short-sighted part of all of this: the refusal to recognize that by getting things for free now, you reduce the breadth of what you could potentially get in the future. You could be the victim, one day, because of the movie that you might love that may never get made.
I have no love for the industry groups that push aggressive, counterproductive tactics to combat piracy. I make a grad student’s wages. I agree that the creative industries are often frustrating and hard to respect. But I also think that we should create a culture expectation, a social pressure, based on a simple principle: pay for the digital art and media you consume. That’s the alternative to ineffectual DRM technologies and lawsuits, a social movement, using the power of public pressure, to urge people to pay for what they download.