Twenty-first century swashbucklers: The rise of ethical media piracy


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Kaleb Littleton

Is there such a thing as ethical media piracy? Let me ask you this: of the streaming services you use, how many of them do you personally pay for?

It’s a tale as old as time: the main goal of entertainment companies and mass media is to make money, and streaming is no different. The face of TV, film and video game distribution has changed dramatically compared to 10 years ago. Viewers watch television series on their own schedule, view new movies at home and replace physical video games with storage on a hard drive.

Even still, piracy has never gone away. So why is that?

Look at the price of cable in Lexington. Spectrum’s “TV Gold” package costs $94 a month for premium channels; additional fees for HD and a “Broadcast TV surcharge” bring it to $126.96. 

The equivalent program from Dish was $74.99 a month, but the website was laid out in such a way that you couldn’t see the price without going to check-out. Given these prices and tactics, I’m not surprised that people are ditching cable

With the migration to streaming, companies have decided to move along with them. And that’s a good thing, because it means more money and time has gone into perfecting streaming services. Considering that many college students primarily consume media through their computers or mobile devices, cable is becoming a less viable business model.

The other edge of this sword, however, is the number of companies that want your money. Disney+, HBO Max, Paramount+, Peacock, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and many more streaming services offer original content and old favorites, but this is causing an issue similar to the one people had with cable. 

If you paid for subscriptions to Amazon Prime, Apple+, Crunchyroll, the Disney+/ESPN/Hulu bundle, HBO Max, Netflix Standard, the Paramount+/Showtime bundle, Peacock and Spotify at the same time, it would cost $100.61 for a month, which is still less than cable, though not by much. Because of this, it has become harder to keep up with the shows, movies and podcasts people are talking about — unless you share passwords. 

Password sharing has taken off as a result of increased pricing. A study by Magid found that 35% of millennials share their streaming information with someone else, and that’s not a bad thing. 

Many streaming services already give you the option to watch on multiple screens or have multiple tailored profiles, so why shouldn’t you? And for those that don’t have access, many have started to pirate exclusive content.

Ethically, piracy is a strange beast. Many companies will claim that it hurts the artist to pirate, and that you are taking money out of the creators’ pockets. But what a lot of companies will never admit is that piracy might actually help them.

In a 2017 study, the European Union found that a game’s sales increase when it is pirated, which implies that many gamers will pirate a game and then buy a legal copy. 

Likewise, piracy acts as an invisible form of competition, preventing companies like HBO from raising prices.

For the sake of fairness, it’s worth discussing the negative effects of piracy on studios and music companies. Film studios lose between $29 billion and $71 billion each year due to piracy, with the RIAA arguing that music piracy costs them $12 billion a year. The iTunes generation dramatically shook up how music sales worked, and consequently, it’s harder for musicians to pay their rent these days.

If we take the organizations at their word on profit loss,  the amount of money lost on their products is a tragedy. But every step of the way, companies have pushed back against new innovations that would have caused them to change how they do business. 

Sony Corp v. Universal City Studios was the result of Universal and Disney suing over the concept of the VCR, which they argued could cause media piracy and make people less interested in seeing movies. The MP3 Player only exists because the Supreme Court ruled that it was legal in Diamond v. RIAA.

This, of course, leads to the most relevant case on this topic, Metallica v. Napster. Napster was a peer-to-peer server used to share MP3s among friends, and Metallica sued when one of their songs was shared on it. 

Part of the reason this was such a big deal is that, in that era, if you wanted to listen to, say, “Enter Sandman,” you’d have to find a copy of Metallica’s Black Album and buy the CD for $10. Because of this, a lot of artists and music companies would make a few good singles and then crank out album filler for the rest.

Napster fell, and iTunes was launched a year later. This ended the album era of the music industry, because now, people could spend two dollars to buy “Enter Sandman” and ignore the rest of the album. The only thing Metallica achieved was killing a website that could have been a pioneer in streaming and permanently damaging Lars Ulrich’s reputation in the eyes of music fans.

That’s why it’s not surprising that companies like Netflix are trying to crack down on password sharing or that various directors didn’t want to release their movies to streaming during a pandemic. They could have some of the money, but they’d rather have all of the money.

Does that mean you should stop paying for entertainment and sail the seas forever? Absolutely not. People still deserve to get paid for their work. However, there are a handful of ways that you can pirate without hurting anyone.

One common reason for piracy is that something simply isn’t available in your country. As an anecdotal example, one of my favorite shows is the “Kamen Rider” franchise. “Kamen Rider” is the older brother to “Super Sentai,” which was adapted into “Power Rangers.” “Kamen Rider” has been an influential work in both the East and West, but until recently, there was no legal American release. In my own experience, however, that didn’t stop people from subtitling the footage from Japanese television and making it available.

Over time, Toei noticed that there was an American fanbase, and media company Shout! Factory got the license to stream select seasons of Kamen Rider, complete with Blu-Rays for Kamen Rider Zero-One.

The key in cases like these, however, is that if a show or movie is released in your region afterward, you should buy it and support the show. That way, the creators will be incentivized to release more content to that area.

Another common argument for piracy is media preservation. Magnetic tape degrades, DVDs and Blu-Rays get discontinued, and sometimes game companies lose the license to sell a game online. This is why the concept of emulators, or software that emulates a previous gaming console, took off among fans of older games. After all, if the physical cartridge for a game is rare and discontinued, why not upload the game’s ROM, the digital copy of the software on the disc or cartridge, to preserve it for future generations? 

As for when people stop finding it acceptable, the line becomes murky. Often the argument is that it’s not acceptable to pirate current generation games or those for the generation that just ended because they are still available.

I have heard some say that they will pirate media featuring people they find detestable, but I disagree with this point of view. If you are so offended by the views of JK Rowling, for example, that you don’t want to financially support her, that’s fine. That’s not a justification to pirate her work, though.

We live in a time and place where there is a vast array of media you can enjoy at any time. But no matter how you enjoy said media, make sure you remember the human that created it, whether that’s an independent creator trying to make a living or an executive deciding to take their ball and go home to their own streaming service so they can make more money.