Intellectual Property Thought Experiment #1

Tim has been out of school for several several years. When Tim was in school, he hated the high prices of textbooks. So Tim decides that he wants to hurt the textbook industry, and he decides to do so by pirating as many textbooks as he can find.

Tim goes to a BitTorrent tracker, and he downloads 10,000 textbooks. Neither the authors nor the publishers get a cent of Tim’s money, and now Tim has an extensive, interdisciplinary library at his disposal.

But Tim has the sinking feeling that he hasn’t struck much of a blow against the textbook industry.

As we’ve said, Tim isn’t in school anymore, so there’s a fairly slim chance that he would have bought many (if any) of these books. And if Tim does go back to school, he just might get charged for books upfront, regardless of whether he already has the texts he needs. And by the time Tim does go back to school, if Tim does indeed end up going back to school, there will very likely be new editions of the books he needs, and his professors will very likely require those new editions, which may or may not be available to pirate.

So in other words, what Tim has done is acquire for free a bunch of things that he would probably never have paid for, and that he just might end up purchasing anyway, in the end. In short, Tim has failed completely in his attempt to hurt the textbook industry.

Tim has succeeded, however, in disproving the ridiculous notion that an instance of piracy necessarily represents a lost sale. Is there any rational way to argue that, by pirating 10,000 textbooks, Tim has cost someone 10,000 sales? or 5,000? or 1,000? or 10?

Without ignoring the ethical dimension of piracy, we can recognize that what Tim has done here is quite different from, say, stealing crates of textbooks and then hoarding or reselling them. We can recognize the significant differences between piracy and theft, and further, we can recognize that having one’s work pirated 10,000 times does not mean that one has lost 10,000 sales, or even 10,000 potential sales.

Next time, I’ll go into more detail about that last point.

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