Theft Vs. Piracy: It’s All About Context

Full disclosure: I am NOT advocating theft or piracy, only contrasting the difference and what it really means to the content creators. There! Now I have a clear conscious. Okay, fine, maybe I am advocating, but only a little.

Ahem. Piracy is NOT theft.

There’s a difference. If someone steals you car, it’s gone. If someone steals a copy of your work, you still have your work, right? It’s a copy, and that copy can actually be a benefit (Wait… what?! But the government said…)

Locks keep honest people honest. If you drive past a couch on the street sitting next to some trash cans, it’s fair game. What if it was a car parked there instead of a couch? It’s all about context. A locked sliding glass door isn’t much of a real deterrent (seeing how you can get through it with a rock), but it does communicate a simple social truth: “This person isn’t sharing; it belongs to them.” Will that stop a real thief? Of course not, but it discourages the honest from considering theft.

“But I lost a sale?” Did you, now? What you should have said is “you lost a potential sale,” because that’s all it was. This is the reason marketing and advertising exists: to convince others that something you’re selling is worth buying. If someone steals something (reminder: that you didn’t lose) that they wouldn’t have bought to begin with, what did you actually lose? Nothing. What did you potentially gain? The possibility that, in the future, they may buy you stuff.

Neil Gaiman says, “You can’t look at (piracy) as a lost sale.” Artists are starting to get it (and no longer need to be content with starving); the potential benefits outweigh the negatives. In a video interview, Mr. Gaiman expressed these very notions, a reversal of his previous stance. “It’s people lending books. You can’t look at that as a lost sale. No one that wouldn’t have bought your book is not buying it… what you are doing is advertising.”

Storming the Gatekeepers. Here we come to the real issue: the gatekeepers. For decades, publishing houses and movie studios have had a lock on content creation AND distribution. If it’s helping Independent film makers and authors gain audiences and spur sales, what’s the problem? The loss of both control and exclusivity. These are huge businesses that are going under because they no longer have exclusive access to creation tools and distribution channels (or to push crap on you that you wouldn’t want to see or hear to begin with, but I digress). Computers and the Internet have changed everything, and now they have to compete with cat videos and digital books for eyeballs (and dollars). Some are changing with the times, but some are stubbornly holding out for a legislative miracle, and American consumers are getting wise to it (SOPA and PIPA, anyone?)

If it’s easy to own, it’s easier to buy. The music industry is supposed to be in shambles, but iTunes is making a fortune. When the last time you bought music at a store? How about a whole album? Major book stores are now going out of business (while small book sellers are making a comeback). The last bastion of big media, the film and television industry, sees the writing on the wall. What’s more is that they’ve done a far better job than music and literature at giving consumers what they want. Miss a movie at the theater? No problem. Buy the disc, download on demand, rent a pay-per-view, subscribe to a premium movie channel, or watch it with commercials on broadcast television. Isn’t that enough?

Prosecuting people who download free songs is like putting drug addicts in jail. This doesn’t make sense, folks. It feels like what it is, consumer bullying. Suing someone for millions of dollars for downloading 24 songs would be hilarious if it wasn’t happening (what? Do they need the money?) It’s all about context. People sharing isn’t piracy or theft; it’s advertising, free marketing from your established fans to new ones and potential sales. Even giving digital content away for a limited time can accomplish this, because everyone knows what “for a limited time only” means.

The only ones profiting from piracy prosecution are lawyers, the larval stage of politicians. Need I say more?

Don’t steal. Share. It’s all about context.