Stop calling it “piracy”

Mar 17 JDN 2458560

It’s a bit of a pet peeve, but much like I insist people use “net wealth” instead of “net worth” (people are not worth more because they have more money!), I find it aggravating that the standard term for copyright infringement for personal use is “piracy”.

The word “piracy” is meant to describe some very severe crimes: Pirates on the high seas board ships to rape, enslave, and murder people. There are still actual pirates today, and they are murderous psychopaths. We glamorize pirates in much the same was as we glamorize organized crime; but the reality of actual piracy is horrific, monstrous violence. This is nothing like the “piracy” of copying songs and video games without permission.

If you need a word for copying songs and video games without permission, how about “unauthorized copying”? That’s what it is. You haven’t stolen anything. You’re not a pirate. You’ve copied something without authorization.

This can still be a harmful thing to do, and there are some cases where I think we rightfully make it illegal. But just from hearing the phrase “unauthorized copying” you can feel the difference: It already sounds like something that isn’t usually so bad and maybe shouldn’t always be against the law.

Indeed, it’s difficult to see exactly where the harm from most unauthorized copying is supposed to be. Even on the RIAA’s inflated estimates assuming that everyone who makes unauthorized copies would have otherwise purchased at retail price (which is clearly not true), total loss to the US music industry from unauthorized copying is less than $3 billion per year, while the total revenue of the music industry in the US is over $22 billion. So we’re talking about a roughly 12% reduction in revenue—and remember that this is an overestimate, because most of the people who make unauthorized copies would not have purchased the music at full price if they didn’t make the copies.

And most of those losses are to the very richest music producers, who are astonishingly rich indeed. The top 9 richest music producers in the US all have net wealth exceeding $100 million. It’s hard for me to see a 12% reduction in revenue for these nine-figure millionaires as a major loss to our society.

It might be a major loss to our society if weaker intellectual property enforcement had a chilling effect on the production of new content. And there is some reason to think that this could happen: Artists make their living selling content, and if that content can be copied for free it will be harder for them to make a living.

But it’s already really hard for most artists to make a living, and they make art anyway. There is no shortage of creative content in the world; indeed, there is an embarrassment of riches that makes it hard for new artists to break in and sometimes even hard for consumers to find the best content. If the goal is actually to support artists, there are obviously much better methods than granting Disney and Viacom totalitarian control over everything we read, hear, and see.

For instance, there are alternative modes of income support for artists that don’t require intellectual property enforcement, such as Patreon and Kickstarter. I make money on this very blog (not a lot mind you, but some extra spending cash) using Patreon without enforcing intellectual property. I’m not sure I could enforce intellectual property on my blog even if I tried.

A universal basic income is another option: Artists mostly create art because they want to, and only need to sell it because, like all humans, they have certain needs for food and shelter that must be met. With a sufficiently generous basic income, I think many artists would choose to share their work for free and live off the basic income, because it was never about making money but about creating art and spreading joy.

Or we could continue to enforce copyright, but in a much more limited manner: Say you get 30 years after publication, and whether or not your work has earned out by then, it goes to public domain and people can do whatever they want with it. Copy it, modify it, turn it into derivative works—yes, even make fanfiction and rule 34 porn, because that’s a form of artistic creation too.

I couldn’t find good data on this, but my suspicion is that most artistic works don’t turn a profit at all, and those that turn a profit generally do so within the first few years. Even if they paid out at a constant nominal rate, at any reasonable interest rate only about the first 30 years would really matter: At 7%, the net present value of $10,000 a year for 30 years is $124,000, while the net present value of $10,000 a year forever is only $143,000. This is because funds received in early years could be invested for that whole time (or used for something urgent and valuable), while funds received later can’t. There’s an old joke that may help you to remember that: “For $50, I’ll give you a million dollars! Such a deal! Oh, by the way, it’s $1 per year for the next million years.”

Extending copyright for decades simply doesn’t make sense if the goal is to support artists. (It makes perfect sense if the goal is to make Disney lobbyists happy.) Continuing to pay royalties for something you made 70 years ago may make you happy, but it wasn’t the incentive to produce that thing in the first place. I have trouble imagining an artist who would be willing to create a work if they received 70 years of royalties, but not if they only received 30 years of royalties.

In fact, economists studying copyright have estimated that the optimal duration of copyright to maximize creative innovation is even shorter than that: Only 15 years. There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is that copyright can actually hinder some creativity, by making it harder to build off of the previous work of others. It’s one thing if all you have to do is re-name some characters in a novel and make a few other cosmetic changes (like Fifty Shades of Grey did; it was originally Twilight fanfiction); but that wouldn’t be so simple for a music remix or a video game mod. Depending on how the corporation that owns the original IP reacts, even a mod that looks and plays completely different could land you in court, because it was built on the same engine. There’s a great deal of ambiguity about just what constitutes a copyright violation in game modding.

And if we’re also thinking about patents as well as copyrights, intellectual property protection is the main cause of the high cost of brand-name drugs: People die because of that patent enforcement.

But there are complicated questions here about the proper way to balance the incentives. I think it would help to make the language clearer and less loaded: Don’t say “piracy”. Say “unauthorized copying”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s