Does Anyone Understand Deprivation Any More? Piracy Because You Want It

David Brothers has written the latest discussion piece about piracy and file-sharing, asking the question, “When is piracy understandable?” I’m sympathetic to this point of view (as can be seen from this essay I wrote a year and a half ago along similar lines, justifying free digital copies when you’ve already bought the print comic). However, I found myself taking the alternate viewpoint, just for fun, when reading some of David’s examples.

-You’re allowed to have a copy of your media for personal use. Does downloading an mp3 or cbr count as a copy? If you get a copy created by someone else, since creating your own backups can be time consuming, is that still valid?

-What if what you want a copy of isn’t available commercially? If the scan is the only source of it, barring back-issue bins? What then?

-Should you be able to pirate something you have already paid for? I’ve definitely bought Nas’s Illmatic several times now across several formats. Tape, CD, MP3, and then vinyl.

These are only a few of his sample cases, but they’re ones that all have the same thing in common: downloading is easier. You don’t have to hunt for back issues or pay high collectible prices or spend your time making a media copy yourself.

I’m now going to sound like a fogey: Why should it be easier? Why should you get a copy just because you want one? Why should “it costs more than I want to pay” be a justification? Once upon a time, there was such a thing as doing without. If you missed seeing that movie because it didn’t play your local theater or you had to go out with your family the night it ran on TV, you were out of luck. If you wanted a copy, videotapes were $80 or $100. You made choices based on priorities, and you didn’t feel as though you had the right to see a film just because you wanted to. If you couldn’t find a copy of that comic you missed from the newsstand, you did your best to keep on reading the series, and maybe 20 years later, you finally found a copy and realized how Wonder Woman got out of that pyramid death trap.

That’s a long time ago, now, and I know how old-fashioned it all sounds, but there is an upside to deprivation and not having everything you want as soon as you want it. You appreciate what you have all the more, and the thrill of the hunt may give you more pleasure in the final result. When I can hear about a book, click to Amazon, and have it at my door two days later, I don’t value that reading experience as much. When I had to hunt used bookstores, never knowing whether a dusty old set of shelves in a store in another town would hold that last volume, it added to my memories of enjoying a series. I love the books I read back then much more than I love anything I’ve read in the last decade. (It also helped that owning fewer books meant that I re-read them more often.)

Today, people laugh at the idea that “you can’t have that”. Maybe the owner can’t come to terms on a release (such as with the Batman TV show) or maybe the limited number of items make prices prohibitive (Miracleman back issues). Those interested say “ha!” and share it all. They can have anything that crosses their minds, regardless of price tag or availability. “I want it” is enough justification. But maybe that’s not a good idea for more than just the “you’re wrong and immoral!” usual name-calling.

I’m not the only one pointing at the issue of demand/desire as key. A recent study about movies concluded that “there is no evidence that BitTorrent piracy hurts US box office returns…. International movie piracy losses are directly linked to the delay between US and foreign premieres. In other words, the longer it takes before a movie is released internationally, the more box office revenues are impacted through piracy.” So you better satisfy that customer demand quickly, or you’ll hurt your own revenue. Good thing most comic publishers have gone to same-day digital release.


26 Responses to “Does Anyone Understand Deprivation Any More? Piracy Because You Want It”

  1. Darryl Ayo Says:

    I feel that (with all due respect) life is too short. Imagine me dying without having read “The Airtight Garage” just because Marvel Comics was too stupid to negotiate a way to keep the Moebius line in print?

    Or I think about not getting to ever read Flex Mentallo (it has since been scheduled for reissue, but at the time, DC Comics said “no, never.”

    Deprivision works in fields like music I think–but when many of the few treasures of our comics medium are tied up in individual acts of stupidity, I say it’s more than an excuse–comic readers have a moral responsibility to seek out these rare and beautiful works.

    I would happily tell a DC executive about the copy of Flex Mentallo that lives on my computer. At the time, DC said “I don’t want your business.” So I made the rational choice: not to die without having read Flex Mentallo.

  2. Johanna Says:

    If you wanted to read Flex Mentallo, you could do so at any time by buying issues off eBay. This is not a world where anything is ever truly out of print. That’s a bad example, too, since it wasn’t a bad business decision; it was tied up in legal complications.

  3. Ralf Haring Says:

    Your question is strange. Life should be easier because it is possible to be easier. Why should life continue to suck just because it sucked in the past?

    There is no reason why there can’t be simultaneous, worldwide, DRM-free, affordable distribution other than stupidity and greed.

  4. Johanna Says:

    My question is this: is there strength to be learned by not having everyone you want at the time you want it? “Sucking” didn’t come into it. I agree with the sentiment of your last sentence, though, although I understand why there are blocking reasons. Proceeding slowly to ensure you don’t lose the store is one of them.

  5. James Schee Says:

    For me I like the not having to do without if I don’t have to. Growing up in small, very rural towns in TX there just wasn’t a way to find something so I never really went “on the hunt” because there was no “forest” to hunt in.

    That said there are so many legal ways to get things, its hard to justify pirating. With eBay and Amazon I can get nearly anything I want for a reasonable price. Between Itunes, networks websites I can see nearly any TV show.

    It is just a nice time right now, as opposed to being a kid where things just didn’t exist. (I was well into my teens before we even had cable TV and heck the local networks still play the national anthem and go of the air at 2 AM)

  6. James Schee Says:

    Thinking on it though. The only thing these days that I could myself saying, okay I’m tired of waiting and would pirate the hell out of it.

    Fox’s old Herman’s Head TV show. I just remember really loving that show, and yet no one even knows who has the rights to it from everything I’ve read online.

  7. Ralf Haring Says:

    Whether there is strength to be gained is ultimately a relatively irrelevant philosophical question. It’s an inevitability that etewaf (the Patton Oswalt-termed “everything that ever was – available forever”) will come to pass and the people who grow up with that reality are not lesser for happening to be born into it. They will be strengthened by new and different challenges that were previously nonexistent.

  8. takingitoutside Says:

    An alternate viewpoint and an alternate “once upon a time” to yours: Once upon a time, if I wanted a copy of a song, I would set my little cassette recorder in front of my big brother’s radio, wait for that song to come on, and hit record. Copy acquired! If I wanted a copy of a movie, I would borrow it from the library, rent it from the Errol’s Video a fifteen-minute walk from my house or wait until it showed on TV, set up my VCR and hit record.

    Now, I can flat out buy a CD in reputable store at full asking price, drive twenty to forty minutes to get it home and spend ten or fifteen minutes scraping layers of tape and plastic off of it, only to find out that I can’t copy the stupid songs I wanted onto the new Walkman (a.k.a. my mp3 player) due to DRM software that was not disclosed on the box, and even though that’s false advertising – a legally-recognized, legitimate reason to return items and get one’s money back – I can’t because the stores won’t accept CD’s or DVD’s back anymore.

    In my case, the result has been that I just don’t watch or listen to as much as I used to (well, except HGTV and the DIY Network; they put practically everything online). I still read a lot of books, but not so many manga. (I’ve always made regular use of libraries, and they don’t carry enough manga.)

    Oh, and god forbid I buy Japanese DVD’s while on a research trip to Japan, or borrow them from a library: graduate students studying visual media are clearly super-lawbreakers, so laptop and computer makers have helpfully built in a limitation on how many times I can switch the region on my DVD drive (I think it was five). Never mind that it’s really helpful for those of us studying foreign languages to hear native speakers talk, there could be copyright violations in there somewhere so they’d better artificially make it impossible. (And before someone suggests it, I’ve been looking for a region-free DVD player in every electronics-carrying store I’ve been in for the past three-plus years. I remember seeing them once upon a time, but they’re not in stock anywhere anymore.)

    My point is, I don’t see pirating as getting everything you want at the time you want it. I see it as getting something less than what you want if you can find it online somewhere sometime, and it got to be that way because the industry have decided that it should get everything it wants at the time and price it wants, regardless of us pesky little consumers.

    To answer your question more directly, everything people want isn’t always available right away even if one pirates, so there isn’t the constant, instant gratification you’re suggesting anyway. There are still plenty of things one has to hunt for, and may never find at all. It depends on what you’re looking for, where you’re looking and where you (and your computer) are. For my part, I’m usually disappointed when I find them, because I’d worked up some high expectations that weren’t met.

  9. Lynn Says:

    I dunno, it also depends on where you lived/how much you enjoyed hunting. Pre-internet shopping, some things just were possible to get in my area. I don’t feel nostalgic about the local music shops, say, refusing to stock LGBT artists and being my only outlet for music.

    At the same time, we could also talk about an alternate history where companies like Marvel/Disney didn’t pay to extend copyright both in time and scope well beyond what serves any purpose for society.

    And then further create tools of enforcement that don’t even require them to meet terms of those agreements to get rid of competitors.

    …And then hoard all that content, because they were really only trying to protect two or three properties that had a movie deal.

  10. Johanna Says:

    Oh, I definitely agree that copyright terms are much too long and don’t serve the public interest.

    And tio, I’d forgotten about taping off the radio (and trying to be quiet while doing so). I think I still have a box of homemade VHS movie tapes around somewhere — including a Japanese Rocky Horror Picture Show, because that was the only place you could get it. Yeah, region-locking is dumb.

  11. Darryl Ayo Says:

    To be fair, not DC nor Morrison, Quitely or Atlas’ heirs receive a cent from secondary market sales of back issues. 100 dollars to read four comic books simply because DC was afraid of the Atlases (I read that they had long since prevailed in court) strikes me as bad business and incondusive to anyone’s copyrights.

    Sure, stealing is a crime, but at the point that I pilfered the issues, there was nobody trying to earn their keep.

    Personally, I will be first in line to get that hardcover when it comes out. But I feel like anybody who downloaded it when they said they had no plans to reprint it can claim desperation.

    There are lots of people who like to download because they hate buying things. Then there are lots of desirable customers who download because they have been told that flat-out, the book will never be for sale.

    Rules are rules, but I gotta say, I certainly didn’t lose a wink of sleep over it. DC made a mistake of not fulfilling their half of the capitalist trade.

  12. John Mundt, Esq. Says:

    OK, so I’m going to ramble and rant a little, but isn’t Johanna’s original question/point about the morality of pilfering, not the ease, quality, timing, or even legality? That’s a tough one, but I do have some thoughts about it.

    First off, attempting to justify old-school radio-taping or on-line DVD ripping by saying “Yeah, it’s stealing, but the quality is crap,” is like saying “Yeah, it was a carjacking, but it’s just a Pacer.” And, we old-school tapers new damn-well that we were stealing. Mix-tapes and homemade VHS movie-marathons were wrong, but, yes, we all did it anyway. Funny, it didn’t feel like I was hurting anyone…until years later when people started ripping ME off!

    As a nominal freelance “artist,” I have been surprised to see unauthorized usage of my artwork on things like a passerby’s T-shirt and a restaurant’s menu (not to mention god-awful “unauthorized” redraws, but that’s a slightly different matter). Suddenly, I saw this whole thing from the other side…but I haven’t deleted any of my downloaded booty yet, either. I suppose, then, we are talking about situational ethics.

    Is it OK to steal from DC because they are a heartless corporate monstrosity, but not from me because I am a perpetually broke nobody? Is it OK to steal from me anyway because I probably will never know? Maybe it is just a matter of resale. If I draw Batman for my nephew, that’s cool, but if Batman appears in the self-published version of Detective Comics that I sell on the street, I’ve crossed an obvious line. But, what if I stayed under DC’s radar with low print runs to a discreet customer base, couldn’t I justify it like I did when, knowing I would never be caught, I taped classic Star Trek episodes back in the day? It’s all wrong, right?

    So, as Patton Oswalt’s “etewaf” is quickly becoming a reality, the “how,” “when,” and “what” is going to be irrelevant. All that’s left is the morality.

    Some responders to this post have suggested that those who want to protect their copyrights are greedy, and, since such artists are probably humans, I don’t doubt the influence of greed, but, at a certain point, producing their art is how they eat, man. Trust me, accolades and “followers” are awesome, but they don’t pay the bills. At some point, the reason to put your stuff out there – as crass as this may sound – is for money. The extension of the “piracy is OK” argument is a world where artists would have no incentive, other than ego and whatever need they have to please people, to put in the time, heartbreak, and hard work needed to produce the kinds of things we all love. So, no, life would not be “easier because it is possible to be easier.” It would be much harder, because creative people will be even more marginalized as (probably starving) quirky idealists, and the wide world of “etewaf” would be a virtual, endless, pathless swamp. To ask “Why should life continue to suck just because it sucked in the past?” in this context is akin to wondering “Why shouldn’t I beat up grade-school kids now that I am an adult?”

    Because it is wrong!

    That’s morality. Each of us must find our own, and, hopefully, it is a code that holds the rights of others in some regard. Of course, I am FAR from morally perfect (I, too, am probably a human), but I have begun to understand that for everything that I steal on-line, or copy-and-paste without permission, I am losing the battle to be better, so I have stopped. Really. I mean, hasn’t nearly a century of superheroes taught us anything? To be good, you have to do good. Besides, as I’ve gotten older (and fatter…but, again, that’s a different matter), I have also realized that I will never, ever, see, hear, or otherwise experience every awesome thing that I would probably enjoy, so there should be some meaning to those things that I do pursue, and, therefor, how I pursue them. After all, that’s a lot of what defines me, both to others and myself.

    I don’t want to sound like I am passing judgment on people who do pirate stuff (IE: everyone alive), just that I have found a place where my moral code (a code admittedly reflective of my having been a “victim” of intellectual piracy) and my actions match up better than in my past.

    In the end, like all questions of morals, Johanna’s is one that each of us must answer for ourselves.

    OK, rant over. Thanks for letting an old crank pontificate.

  13. Johanna Says:

    I’ve made the argument before that some people do see a difference between ripping off a solo creator and ripping off a work where a corporation maintains ownership, so I don’t think that’s unbelievable. Your realization that time is more precious than stuff is one I’m struggling with myself lately.

  14. Lyle Says:

    Sadly, one thing comics have taught me is not to appreciate deprivation, at least in pop culture. I used to be someone who enjoyed the hunt, enjoyed that search for that item I couldn’t find but I eventually realized there was probably something that could be found more easily that I’d enjoy just as much.

    I mean, I planned on watching Torchwood: Miracle Day when it became available on Netflix. I made it halfway through the first episode, realized I was too tired to watch it and when I remembered to go back to Netflix, Starz pulled it. That doesn’t make me feel the need to subscribe to Starz to get to see it or to look for a less-legal source since I have a pretty full DVR without it and still want to use Netflix to catch up on Mad Men.

    While there’s more entertainment choices available, that’s not really what makes me feel the lack of urgency. My parents were they type who would wait at least a month before taking me to a new movie and part of what made me lose interest in the hunt (aside from realizing how distributors manipulate scarcity) is realizing how I wasn’t lacking for entertainment because of those waits, even when Supergirl left theatres in a week, meaning I didn’t get to see it until we bought a VCR.

  15. Johanna Says:

    You raise a good point, one that scares many people when a customer talks about “waiting for the trade” — that wait may convince them they don’t want it after all (especially if a story wraps up much less strongly than it began) or they may forget about it by the time it’s available to them in a preferred format.

  16. Ralf Haring Says:

    “Some responders to this post have suggested that those who want to protect their copyrights are greedy, and, since such artists are probably humans, I don’t doubt the influence of greed, but, at a certain point, producing their art is how they eat, man. Trust me, accolades and “followers” are awesome, but they don’t pay the bills. At some point, the reason to put your stuff out there – as crass as this may sound – is for money. The extension of the “piracy is OK” argument is a world where artists would have no incentive, other than ego and whatever need they have to please people, to put in the time, heartbreak, and hard work needed to produce the kinds of things we all love. So, no, life would not be “easier because it is possible to be easier.” It would be much harder, because creative people will be even more marginalized as (probably starving) quirky idealists, and the wide world of “etewaf” would be a virtual, endless, pathless swamp. To ask “Why should life continue to suck just because it sucked in the past?” in this context is akin to wondering “Why shouldn’t I beat up grade-school kids now that I am an adult?””

    You have so fundamentally misread my post that I don’t feel a discussion between us would be fruitful.

  17. John Mundt, Esq. Says:

    Ralf – Thank you?

    Actually, I agree with your posts, although I did not address your points directly (but I sure pirated their text….see what I did there?). First, other than possibly the desire to get a jump on a competitor with whatever platform is ready the soonest, or, as Johanna suggests, some sort of business-related cautiousness, I agree whole-heartedly that there is no real reason why there can not be “simultaneous, worldwide, DRM-free, affordable distribution” of new releases. That seems pretty obvious.

    Regarding those born to this new etewaf reality, I agree, too, that any currently perceived “strengths” lost to a world where we no longer have to physically search specialty shops and sale bins for what we like or want will be more than offset by the untold numbers of new and different choices and opportunities available, and that this future generation will not know, nor suffer for, the difference. I just wondered about how we will all apply morality to such a world. Expanding upon that thought, what will happen when “Generation etewaf” is presented with whatever technological wizardry supplants our current understanding of media? How will they navigate the morality of the now unpredictable issues that arise then? At some point, across all venues and eras, there has to be a sense of what is right and what is wrong, and I hope that such a code will respect the rights of others. That’s all I was trying to explore. Sorry, Ralf, if I made you feel either singled out or quoted out of context. You just had the best phrases from which I could riff!

  18. takingitoutside Says:

    Mr. Mundt,

    I’m not sure whether you were referring to me or not in your post, but if you were, then perhaps I wasn’t clear. I wasn’t attempting to “justify old-school radio-taping or on-line DVD ripping by saying ‘Yeah, it’s stealing, but the quality is crap'”. In my opinion, and according to the law, taping a song off the radio for your own personal use or recording the Saturday night movie on your VCR is completely legal. If it wasn’t legal to record your favorite TV series as it aired, VCR’s would never have had a “record” button in the first place. (By the way, I am an old-school taper, so you’re wrong when you say we knew it was stealing. You might have thought so, but I doubt most of the rest of us did.)

    In my earlier comment, I was trying to make a distinction between reasonable things to require of a consumer (paying for that special edition Star Wars box set you’re carrying out of Best Buy, for example) and unreasonable things (hiding artificial restrictions on CD’s so that buyers can’t do pretty basic things with the CD’s they supposedly bought and won’t realize that until they get it home and unwrapped, and then creating an exception in how returns are done for your one, special category of goods so that your products, unlike almost all others in the nation, cannot be returned under any circumstances, only, and at best, exchanged). I consider that second category of actions to be a kind of stealing, and it’s definitely immoral. My reaction to that immorality, like I said earlier, is to consume less, and to preference those groups that treat their customers with some respect, but I can understand why people turn to piracy.

  19. John Mundt, Esq. Says:

    Hi, takingitoutside!

    Well, I wasn’t so much referring to you as I was using (pirating?) your examples, but you made great points which got me rolling (sorry if you were offended). You are right, of course, that old-school taping, barring resale or rebroadcast, wasn’t illegal. I was saying that it was wrong. Definitely not the “wrongest” thing in the world, but wrong enough, and I knew it. Just because there was a “record” button doesn’t mean that, on some level, it wasn’t wrong to use it to steal intellectual property. No biggee, just a hair that I was trying to split to illustrate my point.

    I also agree with your general point about unreasonably suspended standard consumer rights when it comes to this specific category of product. I believe that your assessment of some of these practices as being immoral is dead-on. I could make the tired old (maybe true?) argument that stealing from the immoral is still stealing, but I think that your greater point is more valid, namely that an industry that trades in such practices has little grounds to complain when someone games them for a change.

    Like you, the whole situation tends to make me much less likely to purchase any of it anymore. As you suggest, piracy is a natural response for some people, but I was trying to illustrate my reasons to wonder about the morality of it. Thanks!

  20. Johanna Says:

    I think many people, including the Supreme Court, would disagree with your assertion that it is “wrong” to tape programs off the TV for later viewing.

    I also didn’t know until recently that, while ripping CDs for personal use has been ruled legal, the same is not true of DVDs, a distinction that seems silly to the layperson.

  21. Ralf Haring Says:

    Johanna, silly indeed … except to the media companies whose lifeblood is intellectual property. The end goal their every deed strives to create, is pay-per-play. Every single time you listen/watch/read/play/consume something a second time, they want to track that and make sure you pay a second time. Every time you want to consume something on multiple devices, they want to make sure you pay for each device. Every time you want to watch tv from a different cable outlet, they want to make sure you pay for each outlet! Trying to convince people that they shouldn’t be allowed to rip a dvd or modify software on a device they bought are just steps along that path. What’s bizarre is that some very few people actually buy into that, yet would never consider that it should be disallowed to tinker with a car’s engine, reupholster a piece of furniture, or use a different brand of charcoal in a grill than the recommended one.

  22. Cole Moore Odell Says:

    We’re in a funny place that we can now have nostalgia for media that we *didn’t* get to experience, a longing for the gaps in our knowledge that created mystery and possibility, that spurred imagination. There ought to be a special word for that, preferably in French.

    I know that such longing and hunting were huge parts of my experience as a young comics collector in far-out-of-the-way small-town Vermont, but between torrents and the deluge of official reprints, that doesn’t really exist today. I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it’s really, really nice to able to finally read the old comics whose covers I studied so intently in the color sections of the 1970s Overstreet Price Guides; to have handsome hardcovers of 50s Ditko Charlton or Jack Cole Plastic Man comics I never would have read otherwise; or to know that someone could read Miracleman without having to take out a second mortgage (or without having to luck into knowing a pal who owned all the original issues, as I did in the mid-90s). On the other hand, the mystique of all that material is gone with the end of its relative inaccessibility. Universal availability has flattened the landscape to a degree. Or maybe democratized it?

    I do think that the virtual end of longing for missed media has changed us, but without getting into the ethics of copying/downloading, I’m not ready to say for the worse. It’s just different. And in some cases, better, now that resources (time and money) aren’t as central to who is privileged to read or listen to scarce media.

  23. takingitoutside Says:

    Johanna,

    Wait, hold on a second there. You can’t just toss that out casually and not follow up on it – did you mean that one can’t legally rip a DVD for one’s own use, or that the courts haven’t yet found that it is legal to rip a DVD for one’s own use? There’s a big (and potentially very depressing) difference there!

    Mr. Mundt,

    I wasn’t offended, I just think you’re wrong. It’s not just that activities like taping something off the TV to watch later aren’t technically stealing, it’s that they aren’t wrong or immoral on any level. Like I said before, it’s A-OK according to the law, which means that – contrary to your assertion – there is no theft of intellectual property going on there.

  24. Ralf Haring Says:

    DVDs are encoded with copy-protection. The DMCA made it illegal to circumvent this copy-protection for all use, incluiding personal. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RealNetworks,_Inc._v._DVD_Copy_Control_Association,_Inc.

  25. Johanna Says:

    Thanks, Ralf, for pulling the cite for me.

  26. takingitoutside Says:

    Does anyone else suddenly feel the urge to rip all their DVDs?

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