The Ethics of Software Piracy

I know a honeypot thread when I see one. Yahoo Anime rules.

Let’s try it this way:

If you own a physical book, do you think it’s ethically okay to seek out and download a pdf copy without paying for it?

Also: removing downloading from the equation, would it be OK to create your own pdf file from scanning part or all of your book? (Pass it through some OCR, it’s now in your personal searchable archive…)

Google seemed to think it was OK to do something similar for Google Books, and courts agreed.

I think that’s the rub though. For example, if you build, from scratch, your own copy of Monopoly, for your personal use, there’s nothing Hasbro can do about it. The same goes with if I copy a book word-for-word via typing out the text on a word processor, printing it out, then painting my own cover. Copying it via machine is a bit grayer - for example, many copy shops won’t do it if asked.

If I just look up the book pdf online and download it without paying for it, the publisher can say that’s piracy.

Is it ethically wrong if I already own a physical copy?

Is there a meaningful ethical difference here? It just seems to be a difference of time and effort. If I bought a book scanner, e.g.

…would using that be ethically worse than re-typing a book by hand? The end result would be the same, a pdf of your book on your hard drive. As would downloading a copy someone else made with a similar machine…

The difference with digital, which was announced to the world via Napster, is that the reach is infinite and nearly instant. Piracy was a huge problem for content creators in a way that copying your VHS tape for a friend never could be, and it was largely defeated by creating convenient legal alternatives with equal reach and instant availability. (Always bet on convenience in the market.)

This is not about that problem. It’s a nearly opposite problem. Sales aren’t being stolen here. Media is being saved from extinction.


There’s an ethical imperative to compensate creators for their work unless they have waived that expectation. If you bought a new copy of the book, then you satisfied that obligation already. Retyping a book you own, using an automatic scanner, or just downloading an epub copy differ in terms of legality, but not in terms of ethics.

Is the PDF and physical book sold separately? Then yeah, it probably is. Technically, you wanting both a physical and digital copy but only paying for one of those things and not the other would deny revenue to the creator. In theory. I’d say it’s ethically wrong in that case.

As a software developer, I tend to respect things like intellectual property.

But I also tend to think that things like copyright go well beyond time periods that are reasonable.

Good practical guidelines, but this doesn’t address one of the more interesting aspects of the topic.

What if an owner takes something off the market purposefully, for whatever reason? Should popularity and cultural significance of their property prevent them from taking this action? Is it ethical to pirate and then send them money directly?

I think no. If Disney doesn’t want to sell Snow White to increase value, or if George Lucas does not want Han shooting first, there are no guidelines to pirate these properties from an ethical standpoint other than don’t.

I think so. The law would seem to agree somewhat too - this is, in part, why copyrights expire, after all. There are many things that are important to society as examples of artistic expression that have established/affected our culture, and I don’t consider it ethical for these things be withdrawn. People should be entitled to be able to examine the culture they are part of.

I could be sympathetic to arguments surrounding withdrawing works that were published without an author’s consent, but it is irrelevant to me what Lucas’ desires are regarding said shooting scene. I actually consider it unethical for him to pass such moral judgement on such a huge shared cultural experience, and to try and rewrite history to suit himself. Though I also have zero qualms with him releasing new versions, altered however he sees fit.

But then that is becoming less of a legal or ethical argument and more of a philosophical one. Can we stop an artist from destroying their own work? Should we? Why should rights holders (not creators, the wills of whom have actually played very little part in this thread thus far) be able to lock things in a vault and enjoy protection afforded by laws that were intended to ensure things are sold fairly, but are instead abused to do the opposite?

It’s true. We’re not entitled to Snow White.

The thing is, if there’s an animator of Snow White still alive, they might very well like to be paid by those who want to watch it again. But it’s not controlled by the creators anymore. It’s an asset of a media company, and it is leveraged by that company for the prestige it commands. The energy that went in to crafting it is almost irrelevant, even though it is still the primary source of its value. It’s one of many cases where everything’s too complex now to ethically untangle it in the context of pirating.

I think the ethical approach is to do what we can to encourage cultural preservation, maybe even force media companies like Disney to participate. But if we claim that pirating films or software so we can watch them as individuals is cultural preservation, we’re just rationalizing our entitlement again. The approach has to be societal, I would say.

In a sane world, we would be. It came out in 1938. Most, if not all, of the cast members are dead, as are all the writers, directors, animators - practically every creator involved in the project. Even ol’ Walt. I can’t think of a good reason why it isn’t in the public interest for this to be in the public domain by now.

Yeah, you’re right. By “we’re not entitled,” I meant any one of us as individuals, at the level at which piracy happens, where we get a copy for ourselves to consume. I would argue for a societal entitlement–a system of cultural preservation, in other words–which I think ideally would be a robust service like a library. The end results might be similar (I can enjoy Snow White when I want/need to), but the method and motivation is distinct, I think.

I think mostly not, it is a gray area. A lot of sellers will include both versions in a package, and the only impediment for you using your physical book as a pdf is buying equipment and using your time to transfer it to pdf form. That seller would not get your revenue if you copy it yourself, so rather than doing that, you downloaded a version?

It is a gray area though, as if they have it available both ways, you should buy it the way they present it, but I think it is a morally gray area, because they are giving you the ability to give them money for something you want, but you are choosing not to. You are choosing not to pay the creator. But, that comes with a caveat, what format is it in? Is it access to a kindle version? Or a DRM free pdf? Are they providing it in a format that works for how you consume media?

I dunno, I typically won’t download TV shows that I own physical copies of, I will create my own digital back-ups using my physical media. But, for a lot of TV shows there isn’t a good way to purchase a digital version, especially one not tied to an ecosystem like Amazon or Apple, which isn’t a “purchase” but more of a long-term rental. I tend to not like purchasing digital copies of shows from platforms because there is a fairly long history of instances where content is removed. (rare for sure, but a possiblity) that makes me not trust these digital storefronts.

I am much happier to purchase the blu ray or DVD myself, and make my own backup. Morally, I feel this is OK, because I am giving the creator money with the purchase of the DVD, and I would never buy a digital copy separately, because I don’t trust that would be available for me to stream forever. I am happy though, when a movie or show comes with a code for the digital version however.

Again, it is a weird area, because I think it comes down to following a personal code. I don’t want to steal from artists, but I also don’t want to be stolen from (buying something that cannot be accessed)

To bring this back to software, Nintendo is only a few steps away from stealing from their customers by closing the Eshop, how much longer will they allow people to download content they previously purchased? Supposedly the systems will still allow you to download previously purchased titles, but how long will that last? We have already seen titles de-listed on various platforms. Well someone may argue that the fine print says they are allowed to do this, it doesn’t change how I feel about them doing this. I have 0 trust in some companies to allow access for games for what I feel is an acceptable amount of time (my lifetime).

I mean, for the Switch, I specifically have only really purchased physical copies of games. I just don’t trust that ecosystem to last a decade from now.

If all you need is the disc, $22 including shipping. Personally, I’d get that disc replaced just to have a complete in box version. I was surprised to see that the price-insanity hasn’t hit this game yet. Complete in box versions are going for around $50.

Well, I was in high school when that came out, so of course I did not keep the box. I just have the cardboard sleeve the disc came in.

Might be worth buying a CIB just have have on my shelf.

But, it should be important to note, whether I download an ISO or buy off ebay, nobody who made the game is getting paid.

Carmack talks game preservation.

“Even if there are only ten thousand active users, destroying that user value should be avoided if possible”, he says. “Your company suffers more harm when you take away something dear to a user than you gain in benefit by providing something equally valuable to them or others.”

Some good ideas in here

Every game should make sure they still work at some level without central server support. Even when not looking at end of life concerns, being able to work when the internet is down is valuable. If you can support some level of LAN play for a multiplayer game, the door is at least open for people to write proxies in the future. Supporting user-run servers as an option can actually save on hosting costs, and also opens up various community creative avenues.

It’s in Bin #3 for me. Yes, my storage bins are organized by years and console/pc :). I even have original boxes/disc/etc for all the MMORPGs made then to just in case they relaunch. New Horizons or Shadowbane anyone? Wife did make me squish most of them down but I kept some favorites prsitine (Freedoom Force 1 &2 cover art is awesome and on display for example)

On a similar topic:

I have no interest in this show, and supposedly this new season wasn’t great. But the show has been pulled from Paramount+ and Nickelodeon, and is not available for purchase any other way. So the final episode aired, and now it’s gone forever? There’s a good argument for preservation of shows like this.