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The Column icon The Column: Issue 45

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The Column is a monthly feature that explores the world of creativity and aesthetics.

Cracks, Hacks, and Piracy
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

A significant number of computer users download copyrighted content
or install software on their systems without paying. I explore why so many feel at ease using illegal content, and ponder on issues surrounding data piracy.

The content may be music, movies, games, or software. The media, various, from DVDs to downloads. The data is of no worth unless processed by the appropriate hardware, be it an iPod, DVD player, games console, or computer.

Hardware transforms the data into signals we interpret, use, and enjoy. From sound or images for our pleasure to software that performs a useful task, the data moves from the virtual to the physical and becomes "real".

Pirates of the data realm

Unlike the high seas where pirating is rare, the virtual highway is home to pirates at every turn. All motivated by the aim of self benefit and the avoidance of payment.

We generally weigh up the "risk of consequence" whenever we break a rule, whether it be social, legal, or commercial. If we attempt to drive off with a Ferrari from a fancy car showroom without paying, we're not likely to enjoy the rush for too long before we're caught and locked up. If however we view an illegal movie clip on YouTube we're highly unlikely to be prosecuted for downloading copyrighted material.

The prospect of not being caught is an irresistible motivating factor for the majority of computer users who either plead ignorance, or give way to the temptation of data theft.

Pirated data is available at the click of a mouse. One person pays for digital content or cracks the code then distributes the key or disk to their friends, colleagues, or in the case of software, more widely to anyone punching in the appropriate keyword for a specific title via a website that provides a list of illegal serial numbers.

Pirating is simple, is perceived to have unlikely negative consequences, is of immediate self benefit, may stimulate a sense of feeling smart, be viewed as "bargain hunting", and is private. It's rare not to have an illegal copy of a software title, MP3, or DVD, and if everybody's playing the same game, there's a feeling it's socially acceptable. Put simply, people believe pirating doesn't hurt. Data theft, so the mind-set goes, is more roguish than criminal, a sign that you're "in-touch". Like Jack Sparrow, there's something that's even to be admired in outwitting the dominant commercial and political forces. Think of it as an assertion of independence associated with the free software movement or the more radical anti-establishment community. An expression of individuality if you will.

There are, and always will be, those who rationalize what is of self-benefit over the interests of others.

Ownership

Software, music, movies and the like are considered as intellectual property. Indeed whatever is discovered, invented, or created is automatically protected by law, and ownership of this kind of property is controlled by various license agreements.

Software licenses for example are legal documents describing its proper use and distribution. Payment of a license fee provides the publishers and developers of the software with the revenue necessary to continue maintaining, improving, supporting, and developing their products. Any reduction of revenue resulting from pirated software directly affects the company's profitability and ability to grow. Individual developers and smaller software companies are especially vulnerable to the effects of pirating which hampers their success. The incredible sums of money lost by larger companies as a result of illegal copying results in lower investment in existing and new projects.

The author/developer of freeware or freely available content may continue to assert their right to be known as the originator of their work, although no charge is requested to reproduce it. Freeware and free content is also abused by hackers and plagiarists who present or use this work as if it were their own. This too is piracy as much as the illegal copying of commercial data.

The value of ideas

Although ideas have a profound affect on our daily lives, we often fail to recognize their significance or value. Ideas come in all shapes and sizes, but whether spiritual, mechanical, political, or artistic, we are less given to pay for them than concrete comodaties.

We are for example more willing to buy a book, than download and pay for an e-book with identitical content, and not simply because books have a more pleasurable "interface". To restate a point I made earlier, we value physical commodities over the virtual. The majority of people are sensory beings first and thinking beings second.

The primal urge and the loss of belief

Perhaps our propensity to pirate data is initially driven by our primal urge to survive. We are first and foremost hard-wired to consider that which will benefit ourselves.

As we developed into social animals, so we adopted rules that allowed us to live together in greater harmony and ensured the ongoing success of the community. Those that disobeyed the rules were either punished or ostracized, however, social rules are dynamic according to the needs, beliefs, and values of the community, and are often in conflict with the "desire of the self".

The emphasis on spirituality generally declines as nations grow rich. The desire and psychological need for religion is less intense as physical need or hardship is lessoned by economic stability. The influence of formal value systems crumble in secular societies, and the population adopt more fluid morals and behaviors according to their own desires.

The start of something new

Capitalism, the dominant model of exchanging goods and services since the Industrial Revolution, adopts the desire of the self, and through the "rules of trade", has policed the dynamic of material greed and necessity. For the best part of four hundred years the legal, political, and institutional bodies in the West regulated and enforced the commercial contract between seller and buyer effectively.

With the onset of the digital age the exchange of data has changed the way people act. The governing influence of religion in the West is no more. The material world is new, and the exchange of data is the difference. It is clear the majority do not view data theft with the seriousness as they do the theft of real world goods. Perhaps because they mistakenly believe they are less likely to be personally disadvantaged.

An honest future

There are many reasons why pirating software is not the great idea as it might at first appear. Computers with pirated software for example are more vulnerable to spyware, trojans, and viruses. Information may also be collected from your computer without your knowledge via unauthorized Internet connections, however as long as we buy and sell, so piracy will remain.

I believe capitalism limits our creativity, stifles our care of others, and compromises our honesty. Longer term I am certain the market will give way to a more enlightened model of living, but for now, the crises of data theft will continue to escalate as the capitalist venture moves towards its swan song.

I look forward to a time when our exchanges are governed by the desire to grow rather than being powered by the pursuit of wealth or material acquisition. Only then will we act more honestly and reward the efforts and products of creativity.


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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author. Mike is also the Creative Director of 2BrightSparks, a software company.

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