Thanks to the rise of the internet, receiving an illicit copy of a game is almost as easy, if not easier than purchasing a legitimate copy. It’s simple to dismiss such an act as bad, but it is not correct; in fact, the true meat of a debate on piracy arises from its core as a separate issue rather than comparing it to theft or any argument by analogy. Black-and-white accusations do nothing for either side other than polarize each ever further to a respective extreme.
So, let’s take Kant for a spin and look at piracy from 3 different perspectives: a method to obtain a product for free, a method to test a product, and a method to cast an opinion. Perhaps in the process, we can establish reasons for and against piracy.
Why pay for something you can get for free? This is the argument made by some who choose to pirate games, though not all, as industry and government leaders like to make it appear. Even if it seems like a stupid argument at face-value, it does beg a worthy question: what makes something worth paying for? The need for such a product, or to a lesser extent, the want of a product. When it comes to video games, the latter seems to take precedent. The argument becomes easy to evaluate once it is boiled down to the want for the product and the ability to easily obtain it without paying.
The maxim for piracy as a means for a free product comes to be “I will obtain things that I want for free whenever possible.” A self-evident proclamation, and one that seems to iterate the primal desire for possession well. If all people were to act in such a way, crime would be a bigger industry than industry itself, and people would not be inclined to work when they could steal whatever it is that they want. A bigger problem is that the things wanted by people would not exist to begin with if all motivation came from possession, as people would not have the desire to work and produce the goods that others would want, and by proxy, need, such as food. Paradoxical, in that people wanting to obtain things for free would thereby undermine the production of the items they wanted in the first place. Such a universe cannot function, and thus we can dismiss piracy as unethical when it is employed as a method for free items.
It seems pointless to show how a borderline-anarchical society built upon theft wouldn’t be moral, but it is necessary to establish boundaries. In the case of video games, it might seem like piracy wouldn’t be bad. After all, one is only taking a copy of an original when pirating, unlike theft. Operating only from a cause-and-effect standpoint clouds the fact that the purpose behind the copying of an original is wrong based upon the personal motivation of each person as he or she chooses to pirate a game.
On that note, let’s move on to the next example: piracy as a means of trying something out. Demos of games are rarer than ever before, and not every game that comes out is worth the money. Because video games require an initial investment without warranty, a natural tendency would be to refrain from buying blindly, and one method of doing so is by pirating. Indeed, in many ways, the choice on the part of developers to not offer a demo, trailers, or in-game footage makes purchasing a video game a bigger risk than an appliance, service, or subscription. Warranties come with many things, but the only thing you can count on from buying a video game is that you’ll be able to trade it in for some amount less than what you bought it for if you end up not liking it. On the flip-side, it’s hard to offer a satisfaction-guarantee for a product designed to entertain. Movies and books don’t do it either, but all movies and all books come with a trailer, an excerpt, a summary, or a synapses. Something to give you a glimpse at what you’re in for. Video games are unique in that they don’t have to have any of those.
So unlike the person who pirates any and everything, this person would instead pirate games he or she is uncertain of, or wishes to try before investing money. If the game appears to not be of worth, or just not to the liking of the person playing it, he or she will delete it and move on to better things. If the game is worthy, however, this person will purchase the game. One thing to keep in mind is that there are very few people who only operate within one mindset when buying and/or pirating games. The point is that no matter what mindset, temporary or long-term, the motivation behind the action is what drives its (a)morality.
For this instance, the maxim behind piracy is “I will try out things I am uncertain of, and purchase them if I like them.” Not only does this encourage people to be wise consumers, but it also improves the standards for games. When applied universally, the only thing that would change is that poor games would no longer be supported and good games would earn their merit through showcasing the qualities that make it fun, unique, or worthwhile. Furthermore, it presents opportunities for creating games with things beyond advertising in mind, which currently seems to dictate success more than quality does. Rather than being a detriment, applying such a maxim universally improves standards of quality, and mirrors aspects that are already implemented in other parts of society. I can test-drive a car before I buy it, or get a free trial on any other program for 30 days before choosing to dedicate money towards it. Why not for video games too? If games are made to entertain, one should be able to ascertain whether or not they would be entertained before paying for them.
In the same vein, what is the moral implication of choosing to omit information and demonstration of a game on the part of developers? “I will subvert when profit is on the line.” While this might seem like a staple for capitalistic dealings, ethics is not a selective issue; if we choose to hold consumers responsible for piracy, then we must also condemn developers for willingly misleading their target audience.
An oft-overlooked reason for (and against) piracy is expressing an opinion on the part of the player. If a company practices shady business techniques, many people will pirate their games, no matter how good their quality, just to prove a point. People also support games and companies that practice good business decisions; many people invest in companies to show that they appreciate what they do, vis-a-vis CDProjekt and their DRM-free service, Tripwire and their continued support of games several years old, or even games that a person beat a pirated copy of, but still wanted to show the developer they liked.
The third and final purpose for piracy is to show ones standpoint on a company or game. One particularly infamous case would be that of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Due to executive meddling, Troika Games was shut down shortly after the game’s release. Many claim the moral high-ground is to intentionally pirate the game rather than support Activision, the publisher at the time and current owner of the rights to the series. Another example is Mother 3, a well-acclaimed RPG for the Gameboy Advance which never saw an English release. Piracy seemed the only option to play the game, which has since received a cult following, fan translation and site, and even collectables.
Perhaps most surprising of all, the maxim behind this reason as “I will use appropriate means to express my (dis)agreement with a practice” is not only universally applicable, it’s already present in current society, and has been for quite some time. Recent protests against Wall Street, gay rights activism, and historical civil rights movements have all employed this strand of thinking to achieve the desired result. Because the methods are non-violent and utilize civil disobedience more often than not, having such a maxim apply to all persons is not only ethical, but the very absence of it would be considered unethical, as it would signify the barring of dissent and its expression using proper methods.
Piracy can often be a response by customers when they are dissatisfied with a product or service. Conversely, if a customer is satisfied with a product or service, they have no reason to pirate. Prosecuting customers with intrusive DRM tied to the game is using the stick instead of the carrot; if a game is excessively difficult to access and play for a paying customer while easier to pirate, developers are punishing those who pay for the game rather than those who do not. Instead, offering things that paying customers value gives incentive to buy instead of pirate: multi-player, online support, and free updates. Regardless of whether or not piracy is ethical for each individual or on the whole, people will continue to do it. The trick is to realize why people pirate video games and assess the best course of action, rather than over-blowing the severity and isolating potential customers in the process.