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The Indian Pirate
Dec 28, 2012 01:27 PM , By Anuj Srivas
It is time to find middle-ground on the debate on piracy.
It is time to find middle-ground on the debate on piracy.
The problem with viewing piracy through moral lenses is that it blocks all avenues of thoughts concerning the subject.

The events of the last one year have played out eerily similar to that of a global kangaroo court. Presiding over the spectacle is the well-meaning Government, which is inevitably surrounded by movie studios and lobbying associations hissing furiously: “Piracy is using something you didn’t pay for. How is that something that can be morally escaped from?”

For Indians however, it seems to run in our blood; much the same way cricket and religion does.

The problem with viewing piracy through moral lenses is that it blocks all avenues of thoughts concerning the subject. In countries such as India, the more positive effects of piracy are often ignored, for unfortunately, one can only be pro-piracy or anti-piracy. There is no room for middle-ground.

A personal story first— Back in the mid 1990’s, right after our economy was opened to the world, India was expected to become the next conjurer of technological breakthroughs. We had witnessed the advances in Silicon Valley, while most of our population was technologically illiterate.

No legal copies

My first computer was a Pentium Pro which had at the time, a blindingly fast 200 Mhz processor and a 4GB hard drive. Windows 95 at the time had just been released, so having a machine running it at that point was a big thing. The catch was that the copy of Windows 95 my family used was pirated. It isn’t because we couldn’t afford one, or just did it for giggles, but at that point it wasn’t sold legally in India.

A funny thing, when Windows 95 was released here, a few pixels were shaded wrong on its India map. The wrongly coloured regions being the disputed Kashmiri territory, this resulted in a prompt ban from the Indian Government. Microsoft was left to recall all 200,000 copies of the software, and before it patched the error and started distribution amongst its re-sellers, it had created a vast black market that citizens had no choice but to tap into.

Fears of piracy, harsh government regulation, and a poor authorized reseller network ensured that most software and hardware giants never properly marketed and distributed their products here in India. Indeed, Nintendo and Apple are examples of companies who are still wary of entering the country directly. Many of us learnt software, ranging from Adobe Photoshop to Java—mainly due to piracy. It is highly doubtful whether I could be the technology-writer I am today without piracy.

And what about others who could merely not afford it? What of the thousands of young boys/adults who staff the consumer electronic and personal computer shops at Nehru Place or Gaffar Market in Delhi and our own Ritchie Street here in Chennai? With an average monthly income of $200, how were they to end up working in the fields of electronics and IT, without picking up the nuances through pirated software? Piracy arguably stepped up to fill the vacancy left by a poor government education.

Indeed, in most cases, piracy benefitted major software giants. It has always been rumoured that Adobe software, especially Photoshop, was so easy to pirate to encourage adoption with a user base that might otherwise seek open-source alternatives. For the longest time, ‘cracking’ Photoshop was just a mere 1 byte change.

Why no discussion?

It is not the intention of this article, however, to claim that piracy is morally correct, or even that it is not theft. It is that by closing any meaningful opportunities to debate piracy ensures that no good about it is spoken – and worse it does not highlight the true nature of piracy.

Piracy is merely an extension of the fact that paradoxically, media’s true value cannot be ascertained until it is consumed. This holds true for all media including newspapers. With most products, consumers have quite a bit of information – in terms of objective standards of quality and craftsmanship, and the specific intention that one intends it to fulfill. Software, move and music isn’t like that however; a consumer has no idea whether a DVD is worth buying until he or she has seen it.

By allowing inexpensive rentals, or streaming subscriptions and promotions, companies can achieve the benefits of piracy, including the value of word-of-mouth marketing, without its negatives.

If companies refuse to change out-dated business models, however, it is the role of the Indian Government to recognize the benefits of piracy in an emerging economy such as ours and not bailout large movie studios and corporates. By reigning in ISPs, funding technological prevention measures and passing bills that stamp out freedom-of-speech in the name of reducing copyright violation, we are essentially subsidizing the cost of a company attempting to protect its intellectual capital.

And worse, those like actor Kamal Hassan who is attempting to provide a different distribution model is met with opposition from an industry that refuses to change.

One cannot expect taxpayers to provide locks and security systems for a GRT or Nallis or any other jewelry store. Nor would one expect citizens to cough up money to provide armed guards for shopping malls. Anti-piracy measures are a cost of doing business and should be seen as such.