June 16, 2006

In Praise of Piracy

I started reading Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture last night, partly because it's all about attempts to regulate the internet—and that seems to be a hot topic these days—and partly because it looked entertaining. And it is! At one point, Lessig makes it clear that he's staunchly against piracy in the traditional sense—for instance, people in China copying DVDs illegally and selling them for a buck on the street. But he actually makes a better case for piracy in the traditional sense, or at least the case that this stuff might not matter as much as one might think.

For starters, many people who buy pirated DVDs in, say, China for a buck weren't ever going to buy the original DVD for, say, $20. They couldn't afford it. So the MPAA isn't really losing money on these particular people, while these people are benefiting by enjoying movies they couldn't otherwise enjoy. Second, piracy may actually help some companies; if everyone in some Third World country is getting a pirated copy of Windows off the black market, well, then for better or worse they're all becoming addicted to Microsoft, and should they ever get "rich" some day and actually be able to afford to buy computer software, they'll likely stick with Microsoft products.

Now Lessig says that despite all this, property rights are property rights, and stealing is wrong. But—and I guess I'm a bad libertarian for saying this—property rights only seem worthwhile insofar as they have good practical effects. And copyright law only seems worthwhile to the extent that it bolsters creativity and makes everyone better off. In its first 100 years as a country, the United States didn't honor foreign copyrights, and that seemed to be pretty beneficial. And a bit of piracy here and there seems to be more beneficial for poorer countries than strict adherence to intellectual property law, although it's possible this isn't actually true in practice.
-- Brad Plumer 3:04 PM || ||