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The Deceptive Politics of Piracy

In writing "Internet Pirates Will Always Win," Nick Bilton, The New York Times's technology columnist whom I read and respect, has unwisely adopted the political logic and public narrative of the piracy lobby that "information wants to be free." Unfortunately, I don't think Mr. Bilton has fully thought through the serious negative implications of his flawed logic and misplaced political support.

Mr. Bilton is not the first, and won't be the last, columnist to buy into the piracy lobby's deceptive political narrative that fighting piracy is akin to a futile game of Whac-a-mole, so content creators should just unilaterally surrender the concept of market pricing of their content going forward and offer it free to the public on the Internet or at a minimal price that Internet pirates judge is "fair." Mr. Bilton concluded: "Sooner or later, the people who still believe they can hit the moles with their slow mallets might realize that their time would be better spent playing an entirely different game."

The unspoken "different game" here is that the Internet should be more of a public information commons where everything is free of cost to access, and no permission or contract is required to do most anything on the Internet, in stark contrast to being more of an Internet marketplace where property owners of all kinds can charge for and contractually control the use of their property and individuals can assert control over how their private information is used.

Mr. Bilton's headline assertion and prediction that "Internet pirates will always win" is flawed on many levels. (My apologies to Mr. Bilton, if the title was his editors and not his.)

First, it falsely characterizes piracy enforcement as basically an all or nothing matter. If it isn't "all," meaning all piracy is stopped then it should be "nothing" meaning no one should attempt to fight piracy because some pirates will always elude capture. Virtually no societal issue or problem has a perfect solution, but that does not deter societal efforts to mitigate the problem to the extent feasible. This whole absolutist "always" argument is red herring.

Second, if the "Internet pirates will always win" logic is sound, why isn't it logical that Internet spammers, identity thieves, malware purveyors, counterfeiters, and predators, will always win? We already know that Internet bad actors don't "always" win on the Internet, because if in fact they did, very few people would trust the Internet or transact commerce on it -- and that is clearly not the case.

Third, if might is right on the Internet and the rule of law is no match for pirates, why logically won't Internet criminals or terrorists "always" win too? And if that is true, what does that scary alternative reality bode for the future of the Internet and the physical world?

Fourth, asserting that "Internet pirates will always win" is a profoundly defeatist outlook, akin to asserting that bad actors will always prevail, so why should honest law-abiding citizens -- who believe in right and wrong, the freedom and essentiality of private property, the criticality of contracts to commerce, and the centrality of the rule of law to a safe, secure and prosperous society -- bother to fight for what they believe is right and best for society? Fortunately, America is not a defeatist society that gives up without a fight.

Fifth, this "Internet pirates will always win" political narrative falsely tries to characterize Internet pirates as the good guys, and that taking others property without permission is somehow not stealing, but "fair use," when piracy/stealing in every civilized culture is considered immoral, unethical, unacceptable, and illegal.

In sum, I doubt Mr. Bilton would encourage people to steal from the New York Times by writing a NYT column in the paper that asserts the New York Times could never hope to stop the theft of their papers and therefore should not even try. I trust that Mr. Bilton would not think that a wise or right thing to do to his employer, himself or his industry.

Just because something is easy to steal and hard to perfectly protect does not make it right to steal.