Claim: Piracy is just like borrowing from a friend. That’s not illegal. Therefore, piracy shouldn’t be either.


The thing with torrents is I can borrow stuff from my friends across the oceans, continents, etc… Just like borrowing stuff from [my] best friend. (Source)

Response: It’s true that it’s not illegal to borrow/loan thing to a friend. There are a number of differences, though:

First, you need a friend who has the material in the first place. Stuff needs to be relatively popular for you to have a friend who has a copy (who themselves bought it). For example, if one of your friends has a particular digital media (software, music, movie) you want to borrow, then a relatively high number of people in the general public has probably bought it. For example, if we assume that 1% of the US public has a copy, then that’s 3 million copies sold. If there have been 3 million copies sold, then at least we can say that the creator is probably doing reasonably well. With internet piracy, if one person on the internet has uploaded it, then everyone in the world has it. (In other words, if a million people want a copy, they can all have a copy, even if only one person bought it.) Again, we see that disconnect between the number of people who want something and the number of copies sold. In this case, “the internet” is everybody’s friend and he has a copy of everything and he makes copies for everyone.

Second, when you borrow a book or a CD from a friend, he loses his copy. Since only one person can have a copy at one time, this slows down the borrowing. Your friend can’t loan it to a second or third friend when you’ve got it. Your friend might also be concerned about getting it back and the hassle that it will entail. In the end, what you end up with is a situation like the “piracy is sharing” claim — if a million people want a book, even if we factor “some of them will borrow it” into the equation, the’re probably going to sell a high number of copies – maybe not a million, but it might be more like 700 thousand copies sold. Even if people dramatically increased their borrowing, it might drive-down sales, but it wouldn’t put industries out of business.

Third, like the library situation, when you borrow something, you’re generally expected to give it back. What this means is that if you want your own permanent copy, you’ll have to buy a copy. This gives people some incentive to buy it for themselves. With piracy, you get a free, permanent copy. It never needs to get returned, so what’s the incentive to buy?

Basically, piracy eliminates a whole lot of incentives to ever buy the product yourself.

The other problem I see with the “piracy is like borrowing” claim is the assumption that if “X” is legal, then the supercharged version of “X” should also be legal. In other contexts, people disagree with this idea. For example, if a police officer is walking down the street and sees a crime happening inside someone’s house, he is allowed to intervene. But, most people would be very uneasy with the idea of the police setting up a videocamera outside their house (facing in) so that the police could intervene “in case any crime was going on”. The police officer walking down the street is “situation X”, but the videocamera is “supercharged version of X”. It might be inconsistent to say “the police can intervene if they see something going on, but they can’t setup videocameras” but then turn around and say, “I can borrow from a friend, but that means I should automatically be allowed to do internet piracy”.

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