piracy is devaluing digital goodsAlthough it’s an older post, it only came across my feed recently, and I thought Baekdal had some interesting points worth sharing. He says the real problem with piracy is the devaluation of digital goods.

Here’s how he presents this:

Imagine that you have $200 left to spend, and you want to buy a new pair of shoes, a new iPad bag (because you feel your old one is looking a bit out-of-date), a couple of books, a movie, an XBOX game, a magazine subscription, and Will.I.am’s latest album.

Clearly, you can’t do that because the total sum is more than the $200 you have. So you have to make a choice. And because of piracy, this choice is suddenly very simple. You buy the physical goods, and pirate the digital ones:

The bolding was his, and I had to agree that it’s a valid point. I was recently tempted along similar lines myself. I decided last month to set a monthly entertainment budget, which includes Amazon (or iTunes) video, music and ebooks. At the end of the month, I was getting close to my budget limit, and there was a series I wanted to reread. The devil on one shoulder said, “You used to own the series in paper, so hey, you paid the author once. Why pay him again?” The angel on the other shoulder of course said, “No, no. Piracy is wrong. You sold the paper version. If you want to read it again, you need to buy it again.”

No worries. I bought the first book, read it, mostly enjoyed it but decided I didn’t enjoy it enough to buy (or pirate) the rest of the series.

Granted, I didn’t have a strict physical to digital scenario, but as soon as a budget entered the picture, piracy briefly looked like a valid option. It was tempting enough that I can absolutely see someone facing a true digital to physical budget scenario deciding to pirate the digital goods. It doesn’t make it right, but it’s certainly tempting.

He had another point, which ethically is hard to defend, but practically is also tempting. Remember that Baekdal is advocating against piracy, but he throws out this point:

I understand why people pirate a movie if the movie studio is blocking you from seeing it on Netflix. Or if they delay the release for six months in one country while all your friends can see it today in another. I fully understand that. And I do not see a problem with it.

Again, bolding is his. He uses this to draw a distinction between the “good guys” who distribute content globally and with few, if any restrictions vs. the “bad guys” who cripple content with DRM and territorial restrictions.

He closes with a compelling argument I’m not sure I’ve seen before:

Piracy is killing the wrong people, for all the wrong reasons. It’s not destroying the traditional publishers. In fact, it’s helping them by keeping us in the past. Piracy is really destroying the new world of digital creators. People who want to do it right!

His point about “keeping us in the past” is that by forcing a greater value on physical goods, pirates are stopping us from moving into a digital future with viable business models.

I mostly agree with him. I do agree that piracy can lead to a greater value on physical goods. (Cheap 3-D printers could change that model.) If you’re on a budget, piracy can look darned tempting, which is why I think subscription services, if sustainable, can alleviate some of that. I definitely agree with the good guy/bad guy model. I’m also not bothered by people pirating based on territorial or time windowing considerations. Again, I’m resisting temptation myself because another book I really want to re-read is not legally available as an ebook at all.

However, I’m still not convinced that every pirated piece of content is a lost sale, which he certainly implies in his article. Whether he’s right or wrong, however, I still think the best way to battle piracy is to put as few restrictions on digital goods as possible. If what you want is freely available, in a price you’re willing to pay, and you don’t have to struggle with what device you can view it on, the temptation to pirate goes down considerably.