Pirates have been around for more than 2,000 years. From the olive coasts of ancient Greece to the years of Viking dominance from A.D. 500 to A.D. 1050 and far beyond the classic bearded fellows of the Caribbean in the 18th century, the act of piracy is not new. Items of significant value will always have a market; it’s just that not everyone in the market will want to pay.
With the exponential evolution of technology — specifically the Internet — a different type of piracy has washed up on the shores of our culture. Gone are the days of looting passing ships for luxurious treasure chests, overflowing with gold bullions and precious metals. The new treasure is not found below deck in a trunk: In fact, it’s not even physical. Pirates are no longer scraggly-looking bands of bandits, but instead look the same as you and me. They sit next to us in class, ride the same buses as we do and pass us by each and every day. They don’t want too much, just an occasional free movie and album here and there. That doesn’t hurt anyone, does it?
Well, it does when millions engage in this behavior.
This past week, the coveted treasure was Kanye West’s long-awaited album, “The Life of Pablo.” Within the first 48 hours of it streaming through Tidal, the album was reported to have been illegally downloaded more than 500,000 times.
The public’s view of West seems to be either extremely negative and critical or absolutely obsessed and admiring. Kanye is Kanye, and that’s all that matters. However, I cannot help but feel bad for him, or any artists who have their work stolen.
The government is unable to catch or prosecute everyone who downloads media illegally, as there are simply too many people who do so. Combined with the fact that movies and albums online are seemingly infinite — anyone can download them, and they’ll never run out of options — it’s easy to see why millions view piracy as the best option. Why pay when you can still get what you want with no consequences?
I can think of a few reasons. For one, I think of the concept of utilitarianism, the idea that “a morally good action is one that helps the greatest number of people.” Pirating an album helps the listener and the listener only. When I purchase an actual CD, I like that I am not the only person benefitting from the transaction. This may be lame and overly economical, but I like that the store, the record company and the artist are all benefitting when I purchase their good. Even if the artist only gets a few cents from me, it is still compensation for providing enjoyable music and part of an incentive to continue his or her work.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, artists don’t even seem to fight back. There have been rumors that Kanye is planning on suing Pirate Bay, a website of free material, but I’m afraid that is not going to do anything. Even when Internet pirating was in its infantile stages, when Metallica took Napster to court, it did nothing to curb the practice. Is this issue just a lose-lose for business that everyone has simply grown to accept?
I can see a substantive counter-argument. These sites allow for an overall larger audience and distribution of an album, which could ultimately lead to a larger fan base, resulting in more ticket sales and promotion for the artist. However, I find this argument based on too many assumptions regarding the behavior of consumers. Occam’s razor, the principle that the more assumptions an argument contains, the worse said argument is, can take care of this one. Consumer behavior is often predictable, though I believe consumers will predictably opt for free stuff a majority of the time.
Artists are essentially defenseless, leaving these seemingly minor judgment calls in the hands of us consumers. These pirating websites are not the modern equivalent to Robin Hood — stealing from the wealthy and distributing it among the poor — but rather illegal channels of exchange that rob artists of their own work.
Andrew Hall is a UF finance sophomore. His column usually appears on Thursdays.