Like a million other people, I read the fascinating post by David Lowery which essentially argues that downloading music without compensating the artists is ethically wrong. It's a very well-written and powerfully-presented argument.
I was then directed to Jonathan Coulton's response - which was possibly even more interesting, because Jonathan holds an essentially opposing position to David's but was seriously swayed by the clarity of David's words. Like most sentient game-fans I'm a big fan of Jonathan Coulton - for his music, his story, and his generally approachable earnest interest in the world.
The core of David's argument - the part which seemed especially relevant to me - was this:
"By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has worked very well for fans and artists. Now we are being asked to undo this not because we think this is a bad or unfair way to compensate artists but simply because it is technologically possible for corporations or individuals to exploit artists work without their permission on a massive scale and globally. "
This isn't the whole argument (read the link at the top! Treat your brain!) but it's the chink in the armor that lets our natural defensive response to our own piracy habits break down. We know that it's fair for artists to profit from their work - we don't begrudge them the 9.1 cents royalty. But since we won't get caught if we don't pay it... we don't. And thus we step off the ethical path.
Economics are Ethics
The idea that our small, intermediary decisions have a real effect on the world is a hard one to swallow. We all indulge in a bit of candy-eating that we know we shouldn't. We all skimp on exercise on occasion. We all skim the assigned reading on occasion. And in the vast majority of cases we don't get caught - so we feel as if there are no consequences for our lapse. I certainly wouldn't want to demonize anyone for a lapse! But these small decisions do have an impact on our lives - so we shouldn't feel good about them. We certainly shouldn't defend them!
Here's a secret - facing your own shortcomings and admitting your lapses in judgement isn't demoralizing, or a source of weakness. It's actually really refreshing.
Everything David writes about the music industry applies to other digitally distributed goods, like video games. Game developers are generally not as individually identifiable as musicians, so it's a bit of a mental stretch, but trust me that there are real people making these games.
12 years Piracy-free
In 1999 the Dreamcast was released, and I bought one. It was the first console I ever bought - my friends and step-brother had owned consoles which I had racked thousands of hours on, but the Dreamcast was the first one I ever owned outright. I was working at Dark Horse Interactive, with a very young team. There was a whole lot of downloading going on at work, and I was introduced to newsgroups where Dreamcast ISOs (images of the discs) were available for download.
I probably downloaded and burned 200 Dreamcast games that year. This often involved an hour or more of tracking down .rar files, rebuilding corrupted archives, and playing with burn options. Simply labeling the discs became quite a chore, since for some reason my mind insisted on changing every game's name slightly so that nobody but me could identify the contents of each disc.
I was doing this at work, and every night as I stayed up with my infant daughter (she pretty much didn't sleep, so her mother and I adapted to alternating sleep schedules.) I was simultaneously supporting myself (and my family!) by making video games for commercial sale.
At some point, after roughly a year of this lifestyle, I realized that I was stealing from my fellow developers. I was also stealing from their publishers, distributors, and retailers - but that didn't bother my conscience much. But I stopped stealing games cold-turkey. I had to satisfy myself with buying only the games I could afford (what actually happened was my game-consumption stayed pretty level, but I stopped doing tons of other things).
I still overeat too often, I still skip brushing my teeth some nights, and I still stay up later than I should sometimes. But I've been 100% piracy-free for more than 12 years now, and honestly it hasn't been a very big deal. Reading these articles on compensating musicians reminded me that facing up to our shortcomings can lead to really positive change. I'm going to try to chalk up another improvement or two.