2023-12-07 01:14:53
Piracy | Look for the silver lining theory


“MERCHANT and pirate were for a long period one and the same person,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. “Even today mercantile morality is really nothing but a refinement of piratical morality.” Companies, of course, would strongly disagree with this suggestion. Piracy is generally bad for business. It can undermine sales of legitimate products, deprive a company of its valuable intellectual property and tarnish its brand. Commercial piracy may not be as horrific as the seaborne version off the Horn of Africa (see article). But stealing other people’s R&D, artistic endeavour or even journalism is still theft.

That principle is worth defending. Yet companies have to deal with the real world—and, despite the best efforts of recorded-music companies, luxury-goods firms and software-industry associations, piracy has proved very hard to stop. Given that a certain amount of stealing is going to happen anyway, some companies are turning it to their advantage.

For example, around 20 times as many music tracks are exchanged over the internet on “peer to peer” file-sharing networks as are legitimately sold online or in shops. Statistics about the traffic on file-sharing networks can be useful. They can reveal, for example, the countries where a new singer is most popular, even before his album has been released there. Having initially been reluctant to be seen exploiting this information, record companies are now making use of it (see article). This month BigChampagne, the main music-data analyser, is extending its monitoring service to pirated video, too. Knowing which TV programmes are being most widely passed around online can help broadcasters when negotiating with advertisers or planning schedules.

In other industries, piracy can help to open up new markets. Take software, for instance. Microsoft’s Windows operating system is used on 90% of PCs in China, but most copies are pirated. Officially, the software giant has taken a firm line against piracy. But unofficially, it admits that tolerating piracy of its products has given it huge market share and will boost revenues in the long term, because users stick with Microsoft’s products when they go legit. Clamping down too hard on pirates may also encourage people to switch to free, open-source alternatives. “It’s easier for our software to compete with Linux when there’s piracy than when there’s not,” Microsoft’s chairman, Bill Gates, told Fortune magazine last year.

Another example, from agriculture, shows how piracy can literally seed a new market. Farmers in Brazil wanted to use genetically modified (GM) soyabean seeds that had been engineered by Monsanto to be herbicide-tolerant. The government, under pressure from green groups opposed to GM technology, held back. Unable to obtain the GM seeds legitimately, the farmers turned to pirated versions, many of them “Maradona” seeds brought in from Argentina. Eventually the pirated seeds accounted for over a third of Brazil’s soyabean plantings, and in 2005 the government relented and granted approval for the use of GM seeds. Monsanto could then start selling its seeds legitimately in Brazil.
Innovators ahoy

Piracy can also be a source of innovation, if someone takes a product and then modifies it in a popular way. In music unofficial remixes can boost sales of the original work. And in a recent book, “The Pirate’s Dilemma”, Matt Mason gives the example of Nigo, a Japanese designer who took Air Force 1 trainers made by Nike, removed the famous “swoosh” logo, applied his own designs and then sold the resulting shoes in limited editions at $300 a pair under his own label, A Bathing Ape. Instead of suing Nigo, Nike realised that he had spotted a gap in the market. It took a stake in his firm and also launched its own premium “remixes” of its trainers. Mr Mason argues that “the best way to profit from pirates is to copy them.”

That this silver lining exists should not obscure the cloud. Most of the time, companies will decide to combat piracy of their products by sending in the lawyers with all guns blazing. And most of the time that is the right thing to do. But before they rush into action companies should check to see if there is a way for them to turn piracy to their advantage.

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