This article was originally published to Zelda Informer on December 26th, 2012. Following our recent piece, "Piracy is Never Justified," by Nathanial Rumphol-Janc, I believe this is an appropriate time to bring this article back to light. This article is intended to serve neither as a rebuttal nor expansion to "Piracy is Never Justified," but rather an exploration and alternate viewpoint of this touchy issue.
Since the beginning of civilization, one form or another of piracy has been a pressing concern. Though piracy in modern times has, in most cases, outgrown cannonballs and rotting teeth, it’s as threatening an act as ever. This is perhaps due to the coevolution of the crime and those who commit it.
When we think of the term “piracy” in its modern sense, we tend to think of the morally reprehensible. Media moguls spent years combatting piracy by conjuring up disheveled images of thugs and depictions of malevolence, along with the line “You wouldn’t steal a car,” but this sort of propaganda couldn’t be farther from the truth. No longer is piracy an act of devestation performed only by the wicked, but as piracy’s negative outcome has weakened, its rates have proportionally skyrocketed. Nearly everyone in the digital world, even the most righteous, has pirated something at some point in their lives, be it a movie, a song, or in our case, a video game.
Those corporations and their ads are right, though. Piracy is theft*, and strictly speaking, piracy is illegal. Not even by technicality is that objectionable — the United States specifically outlaws piracy, as do other countries world-over. Thus, what we as individuals instead concern ourselves with is the morality of piracy: something that will forever remain ambiguous, given the wide variety of cases in which the outcome differs. So to answer this question, we must first ask why piracy is illegal to begin with.
Piracy is illegal primarily because it cheats rights holders out of money they’ve justly earned. I repeat: it is theft. But the reason piracy is so common is because the proper authorities do so little to prevent it. The widespread and mostly anonymous nature of the crime makes cracking down a waste of time, energy, and resources.
Further contributing to its popularity, piracy falls directly in line with the “Button, Button” complex: isolation from consequence increases one's inclination to inflict harm. In the case of piracy, isolation is so strong that we’re often completely oblivious to the damage it does. When faced with the choice between downloading a video game or shoving someone to the ground and running off with sixty dollars from their wallet, one would almost immediately choose the former out of common empathy, but the consequences for the victim are essentially the same.
For every common-knowledge negative of piracy, however, it poses benefits that go largely unmentioned. Foremost, it knocks down the barriers constructed by the almighty dollar and spreads the experience of a game — including its visuals, music, and creative vision — beyond its previous limits. In turn, if said experience is worth full price, consumers who pirate to test the waters, rather than simply to avoid paying, are more likely to shell out full price when the sequel inevitably rolls around.
These are the pros and cons of piracy at its core, but the issue is much more complex as we delve into the specifics. The most important question to ask is what happens when rights holders no longer profit from their creation anyway? This brings me to my main point: piracy bridges the gap between supply and demand. When used properly, piracy is not only unobjectionable, but good. What makes piracy amoral is the abuse of its existence, not existence itself.
Pirates often justify themselves by saying, “that company has plenty of money; they don’t need mine.” South Park wonderfully satirizes music piracy in the episode Christian Rock Hard by showing celebrities sulk about the superfluous luxuries they would be able to afford if not for piracy. The logic is sound, no doubt, in this satirical and seemingly pro-piracy argument, but theft is still theft. Only when rights holders no longer sell the product in question does piracy move away from malice and into safer waters.
When pirating games that are no longer sold in stores, the only potential damage dealt is to second-hand online distributors. Even then, there’s always someone looking to buy a physical copy. When it comes to older games, supply is almost invariably lower than demand, and that’s when piracy becomes good.
In recent years, matters have been further complicated by the introduction of digital distribution. In 2006, downloading ROMs for Super Mario Bros. and Metroid would have been completely unproblematic with this philosophy. Now that such titles are now available on Nintendo's various Virtual Consoles, pirating a copy once again prevents Nintendo from the profits they deserve. It would seem now that titles only available in physical form, such as Donkey Kong 64, are still fair game, but as the industry relies further on digital distribution, we will never be able to vindicate pirating today’s newer releases.
Digital distribution also is a perfect example of the good that piracy can do. One reason that older titles are being re-released is because developers now recognize that the market for these titles still exists and are able to cater to that market once more. Without piracy highlighting this interest, we may never have been able to purchase digital copies of these games. What money used to go exclusively to second-hand distributors is now returning to the pockets of the rightful owners.
Unfortunately, piracy and its abuse will always coexist. There’s no way to eliminate exploitation without eliminating righteousness. But maintaining righteousness is tricky — without enough self-restraint, piracy can be a slippery slope. What begins with “I’ll get it for free now and pay later if I like it” can easily turn into “I downloaded the last one for free. What’s the harm if I do the same again?” Even with the best of intentions, it’s easy for paying to slip one’s mind, and while the harm done by each individual is negligible, everybody contributes to the larger and more detrimental whole.
I say that piracy is morally right when the game in question is neither carried new in-stores nor sold digitally by the publisher. Piracy is morally wrong when used for no purpose but avoiding payment. All other cases and intentions of piracy may not be inherently right, but are at least defendable based on personal morality and intentions. So how can we say it’s fair that all forms of piracy are illegal? It’s not right to consumers who can’t get their hands on a fantastic game, and it’s not fair to developers whose messages are spread only through illegal means.
But we have the power to change that. As it stands now, piracy’s pros and cons seem to be in a decent balance, but if laws were somehow changed to only restrict piracy where it does direct harm to the rightful publisher, we could exploit the positive effects of piracy and use it as a force of good.
As informed readers, I encourage you to formulate your own perspective, so what do you think? Is piracy ultimately good or evil, or is it a medium determined on a case-by-case basis? Would limited legality as opposed to complete restriction be good for the industry, or would it have no effect in the long run? Should we do anything to change its current legal standing? Get talking in the comments!
About the Author
Colin McIsaac first played Donkey Kong Country before turning even three years old, and has since grown into an avid gamer and passionate Nintendo fan. Colin McIsaac started writing for Zelda Informer in August 2012 and served as one of Gamnesia's founding members in January 2013.