Is piracy in the computer industry a good or bad thing?

Patching is too important to be neglected
Patching is too important to be neglected

The computer industry is in two minds about piracy: there's a thin line between abuse and over-regulation


Piracy has always been a controversial issue. In the more traditional use of the word, high seas piracy in the 1500s was a big source of revenue for Her/His Majesty's coffers and many British naval heroes had a hand in it. 


In more recent times, the hugely successful and entertaining Pirates of the Caribbean film series has again made buccaneers popular with children (and adults who like Johnny Depp). Alongside the popular image of the "nice" pirate there are the far less pleasant and all too real modern pirates, such as those hijacking ships near Somalia. 


Just as the general population has both "nice" and "nasty" pirate images, so does the computer industry. We have the pirate portrayed as a freedom fighter and hero by supporters of The Pirate Bay and other similar file sharing sites. Then we have the pirate portrayed as thief and enemy of the public by the film, music and software industry bodies such as MPAA, RIAA and BSA. The two lobbies regularly lock horns in debate.


Part of the problem is in the nonsensical nature of modern copyright law. I'm not in the "all copyright is wrong" camp by any means, as I believe it should be up to the originator if they want their material to be given away free. However, I can understand why people find copyright law in the UK unfair, and how this devalues it in the eyes of the public.


For example, at home I use Logitech's wonderful SqueezeBox digital audio player. This means I can lounge around and listen to any of my 400 or so legally-purchased CDs without leaving the sofa or, more importantly, disturbing my cat. It's a very convenient way to enjoy music. Unfortunately, by putting my CDs onto a hard disk I have committed an offence under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act (albeit one that will hopefully be removed when the Act is amended). 


Ironically the reverse isn't always true, as in many cases legally purchased MP3 music can be burned onto CD within the terms of the licence. This is clearly a rather daft asymmetry. 


The financial cost of piracy is a frequent source of debate. In a review of recent research (http://bit.ly/ddxUT), latest available figures estimate an annual loss of £1.25 billion to the UK software industry. Space does not permit a full discussion, but these statistics are open to debate over their accuracy and should be treated with appropriate cynicism. 


Given such statistics, it's not surprising that lawmakers are constantly lobbied to address the problem. Recently this moved to suggestions of a "three strikes" scheme: get caught three times and your internet access will be cut off. The details are not so clear, for example what standards of evidence will be accepted, and whether the cut-off will be just the current ISP or if they will be blacklisted across the industry. France has passed a "three strikes" law; other countries may follow.


In the UK, it's been suggested that ISPs should collaborate with media bodies to enforce the law, neatly sidestepping all that messy due process and evidential standards. Someone, presumably the customer, will need to foot the bill if this becomes standard practice.


Ed Felten, professor of computer science at Princeton and a commentator on digital rights management, proposed taking this further (http://bit.ly/16KBzF). If "three strikes" is suitable for internet abuse, why not other media? Surely we should apply this to people who commit crimes in reading and writing, banning them from both for a year?


Of course Felten was making an amusing point; why should internet crime be treated differently? We already have laws on copyright abuse, and infrastructure to pursue offenders. Moving law enforcement into the private domain is worrying; just look at how well self-regulation has worked in the financial industry.


Standards of evidence are my biggest concern, though. Try reading a legal textbook on the law of evidence and you'll see how it is. In all likelihood, much lower standards would be accepted; if you doubt this, I suggest you look into how RIAA sent legal warnings to laser printers for hosting illegal files (http://bit.ly/18F41Y).


Piracy is unlikely to go away any time soon, but that's no reason to throw away long established legal principles.


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