Online piracy is a term used to describe the illegal copying of copyrighted materials from the Internet. The term is widely used, both by opponents and proponents of online piracy. Opponents, such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) use the term to attempt to equate copyright violators with the pirates of the high seas who plundered ships. Proponents use the term to recollect the romanticism of the pirate lifestyle, with its stressing of individual freedom and liberation among all else. The term piracy in this context actually has its origins long before the advent of the Internet, with the author Daniel Defoe referring to pyrates making illegal copies of his books in 1703.
There are three main types of piracy in this context: music piracy, movie piracy, and software piracy. Although others exist, they are much less common, as they tend to relate to very specialized disciplines. By contrast, although the numbers are not precisely known, hundreds of millions of people partake in online piracy worldwide. The effects of online piracy are not well established, with each side presenting various reports that establish radically different ideas.
Proponents of online piracy hold that the financial impact of piracy is negligible, and that in some cases piracy may actually help sales of a product. They argue that the vast majority of people who pirate music, videos, and software are not people who would purchase the product in the first place. Some also argue that some people pirate music to see if they enjoy it, and once they do they begin buying actual CDs, or legal copies of the songs, or attending concerts and feeding money into the system in that way. They further point out that the majority of the price of a sale does not go to the artist, and that except in the cases of top performers, the artists can be helped by fans pirating their music and donating to them, or attending concerts, so that they see nearly all of the money.
Opponents of online piracy hold that it poses a serious threat to artistic and creative development in the world. They hold that piracy cuts into profits, reducing the amount of money an artist or programmer can expect to make, and therefore reducing the incentive for them to create new work. They further point out that most modern music is produced not only by artists, who may be compensated by attending concerts or donations, but by a large support staff, including engineers, publishers, and designers, who may choose to no longer support the medium if they can’t make a living at it.
The battle against online piracy, or at least electronic piracy, has been going on since before there was an Internet, with early software manufacturers attempting novel security features to stop people from making illegal copies of their software. A great deal of contemporary music and videos are protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM) packages, which attempt to limit the number of computers a media file can be used on. Opponents, however, point out that DRM often winds up crippling the media for legitimate buyers of the media, and that hackers can easily strip DRM if they really want to pirate it.
Neither piracy, nor the fight against it seem likely to go away anytime soon. Security measures continue to be developed, as do the techniques used to break them, and distribute copyrighted material freely. In many cases, the implementation of DRM and other security measures has provoked a consumer backlash, with some groups boycotting products that implement DRM. In Europe, actions against online piracy have sparked political backlash, with a nationally recognized Pirate Party winning seats in Parliament. The international nature of piracy, and the fact that different countries have very different laws about it, is another factor complicating the issue as a whole.