Steal a Little: Piracy & the Economy

I’ve wanted a sailing yacht for years but have never been able to afford one — until now.  Thanks in part to a report on piracy and counterfeiting by the GAO and this explication by CCIA (Computer & Communications Industry Association)  lobbyist Matt Schruers, I now have a plan that will put me at the helm of the sloop Larceny by the Summer of 2016.  And the best part is the whole family gets to collaborate to make it happen. According to my rough calculations, all we have to do is steal groceries like a Dickensian gang for three full years, and we’ll save enough for a substantial down payment on the boat.  I’m thinking Beneteau 45ft, but if any seasoned mariner out there has a recommendation, let me know.

Now, you might think shoplifting food is a bit radical as an alternative financing option, but that’s where you’re wrong.  See, if the cops nab me or one of my kids while boosting a chicken from the local farm stand (we’d steal organic of course), all I have to do is point to this GAO report, which according to Mr. Schruers, advocates a truly progressive economic principle most of us have never considered.  If you want more things than you can afford, steal some and pay for the rest. Why is that okay? Because in the economy overall, it’ll be a wash. To quote Mr. Schruers:

“So what is The Issue of Which One May Not Speak?  The fact that money not spent on pirated content is, in many cases, still spent.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office pointed this out in a widely discussed report in 2010, observing that “effects of piracy within the United States are mainly redistributions within the economy for other purposes and that they should not be considered as a loss to the overall economy.”  Money does not “just vanish.”  A Swiss Government commission made a similar observation the following year.”

Go back and read that again. Because full-grown adults are saying without a hint of irony that if you don’t spend the money in your pocket, it doesn’t just disappear but will remain there until you spend it on something else! The concept is quite a mind-blower when you come to recognize its elegance. The money you have is the money you have. It’s zen-like.  I am sorry to report, though, that the money spent to reveal this discovery is in fact gone forever.

Of course, in my scheme, when I do get pinched for shoplifting my way toward boating bliss, I have to hope the prosecutor only reads Matt Schruers’s post and not the GAO report because the report itself mostly says piracy and counterfeiting are likely very harmful to the economy in several ways.  In fact, the report devotes a lot of ink detailing the inconclusiveness of many studies that look either positively or negatively at the effects of piracy and counterfeiting, but if we’re just pulling quotes at will, how about this one:

“For example, when pirated movies are sold, it damages not only the motion picture industry, but all other industries linked to those sales.”

 That’s just common sense, and it seems to me the only point worth making if one is going to assess the macroeconomic pros and cons of actually stealing from any industry.  While it’s true that not paying for selected goods and services  will undoubtedly leave you with more disposable income to spend on other things, the industry you’re not paying for will eventually shed jobs.  And if those jobs were held by people in your community, they will no longer be customers for whatever it is you’re selling.  See how that works?  It’s the same economics we learned in high school because it’s pretty damn basic. Perhaps Matt Schruers skipped class that day to hone whatever budding skills would produce this paragraph:

“Normatively bad isn’t the same as an economically bad, however.  Not all normative transgressions necessarily have macroeconomic consequences.  And yet those two items are invariably linked when studies consider infringement.  Infringement is bad, therefore we must assign an economic cost to its badness.  Hence, study after study makes the repeatedly discredited assumption that every infringement is a lost sale, usually calculated at the highest retail price for which the good was offered, and every lost sale represents a commensurate economic loss.”

Strip away words like normative that make the above sound smart and thoughtful, and it’s really just proposing a thesis — that infringement might be a form of theft that doesn’t cause macroeconomic harm — for which Schruers can offer no support.  In fact, were he to refer to the same GAO report, he would find quite a few assumptions of macroeconomic harm from piracy and counterfeiting.  Instead, Schruers segues to the repetitious, obvious, and irrelevant observation that not every individual infringement represents a lost sale.  One doesn’t need a study to draw this narrowly-focused conclusion, and the lost sale analysis is not an indicator of macroeconomic loss. Also, if we’re just going to repeat the words the average 14-year-old will use to justify torrenting music and movies, it’s a safe bet we’re not riding the wave of avant-garde economic theory.

One of my colleagues in the artists’ rights community asked if I were going to sail my new, ill-gotten yacht to Neverland, and the joke resonated more than I think he intended.    Each time I encounter some new attempt to construct a logical or economic argument for the supposed benefits of mass theft of intellectual property, it feels very much like a visit to Mr. Barrie’s  imaginary island — a place where boys refuse to grow up, where they feast on food that isn’t there, and all they really long for is someone who can tell a good story.

See Chris Castle’s “Stealing is Good for You…”

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