The Four Rules of Ethical Piracy

I prefer to come by my entertainment legally, but I’ll go on record here: It’s not uncommon for me to pirate media. However, I do recognize the ethical issues inherent to piracy, and it’s something I’ve thought long and hard about. I want to support people who make art that I enjoy, but piracy still sometimes seems like the easy or even logical choice.

After much thought, I came up with a personal methodology for what and how I pirate, which I will reproduce for you here.

1. Pirating media you’ve already purchased is acceptable

In the digital age, physical forms of media (CDs, DVDs, etc.) are merely storage devices for the actual content. When you purchase media, you are purchasing the permanent ability to access that content, and if you lose access to that content for unforeseen circumstances, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to get that content back for free.

Say your CD collection is stolen, or a DVD is cracked or a kerfuffle with computers renders your music inaccessible thanks to a digital rights management snafu. If such a thing were to happen, I would argue that that content still belongs to you. You paid to support the people who create it. You just no longer have it. To pirate that content again does not cost the creator or provider any additional money, nor does it deprive them of the initial investment you made. It only deprives them of the additional money they’d make from you purchasing something again that you’d already paid for.

2. Pirating media that is no longer available is acceptable

This one’s a no-brainer. If I’m trying to find an obscure album by the late 1990s rock band Polarboy, a defunct band from a defunct label that does not sell their albums physically or digitally, the only two ways I can get it is through piracy or buying it from someone else who already owns the CD. Since neither way makes the creator or publisher any money (and the second way is sometimes unavailable), piracy is definitely acceptable.

3. Pirating media is acceptable if it is not reasonable for you to purchase it

This is where I might lose people, particularly because this can get subjective.

This is a rule I invoke a lot when I watch TV shows – particularly heavily serialized TV shows that you can only watch from the beginning if you want to understand them. In fact, this rule for me basically only applies to TV shows, because if we’re honest about it, individual books, albums and movies are almost always affordable.

Say I hear about a show that sounds interesting, but it’s too complicated to just drop into the middle. I decide that I want to watch this show, but wait! It’s in the middle of its fifth season. How do I catch up?

Well, the first thing I do is go to Netflix, where I have an instant stream account. I have started watching multiple shows this way.

But no! The show’s not there. The next thing I do is go to the show’s website. Sometimes past seasons are available there for free to help catch fans up. But the show’s not there either.

The next thing I do is go to Hulu, where they occasionally have the same deal going. No luck. Now here’s where it starts to get tricky.

As a 24-year-old with limited expendable income, I have to make my purchasing decisions carefully. As such, I have chosen not to purchase Hulu Plus, a Netflix-like service that caters more to TV watchers than Netflix’s often movie-oriented focus. Technically, I could get Hulu Plus to watch the show, but I choose not to. Some of us may part ways here, but I’ll get back to this.

So I choose not to purchase another service, or maybe Hulu doesn’t even have the show. There’s always DVDs.

But my movie rental store doesn’t have them, or maybe they do but they’re $3 a disc. Depending on the show, if I rent them, I could be out $60 for the first four seasons, and because of DVD release scheduling, I still wouldn’t be able to catch up to the fifth season. Buying the DVDs outright is even more expensive – a significant investment under any circumstances, particularly if I’m not even sure I’ll like the show. In general, I don’t like buying dramas until after they’re over in case they retroactively make themselves bad (looking at you, Lost).

At this point, piracy becomes an option to me for a couple of reasons which may be divisive.

First of all, if I didn’t pirate the show, I just wouldn’t watch it. I’m not a potential customer at this point – I’m a firm believer that you should never pirate something that you would have otherwise bought, but I wouldn’t have rushed out to buy these DVDs. I just wouldn’t have bothered (or I would have borrowed the DVDs from a friend, a strategy that is legal but still doesn’t make anyone any money).

Second of all, I believe in this day and age, it’s the job of content providers to provide content in a way that is accessible and acceptable to the people interested in the content. If I’ve tried a number of cost-effective (for me) and perfectly commercially legitimate (for them) ways to get the content and am unavailable to do so, then I’m OK with resorting to piracy.

A perfect example of this kind of thing is HBO. Literally the only way to legally watch the show before the DVDs come out (sometimes a full calendar year after a season is done) is to have an HBO subscription – which also requires having a cable subscription. Is it any wonder that Game of Thrones is the most pirated TV show of all time?

All of this still might rub you the wrong way, and I understand that. However, I’ve still got one more rule.

4. Piracy is no substitute for support

Any fan of any media should want to support the people who create it. When you pirate something and discover that you like it, make a point to figure out a way to contribute to that thing’s financial success. Did you pirate Game of Thrones because getting HBO to watch one program is prohibitively expensive? Then buy the DVDs when they come out. Did you hear about Community late in the game and pirated the first three seasons to catch up? Now that you are caught up (assuming you still want to watch the Harmon-less version), watch the episodes live or catch them on Hulu, where you can make the network advertising dollars.

I’ve used piracy to get into things that I never would have purchased on my own. Almost always, my act of piracy has ended up turning me into a loyal customer. In the end, people who would never have made money from me otherwise ended up getting my business.

And isn’t getting business what the piracy debate is all about?

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