Why Piracy Is Indispensable For The Survival Of Our Culture

from the posterity-will-thank-them dept

Last Year Techdirt wrote about the case of the huge collection of historic jazz recordings that had been acquired by the US National Jazz Museum. The central problem is that even if the recordings can be digitized before they deteriorate, very few people will hear them because of their complicated copyright status.

But as this eye-opening article from Benj Edwards explains, bad as that situation is, it’s even worse for the entire category of software creations. For example, consider the earlier generation of floppy-based programs:

Floppy disks, which were once used as the medium du jour for personal computers, have a decidedly finite lifespan: estimates for the data retention abilities of a floppy range anywhere from one year to 30 years under optimal conditions.

A floppy stores data in the form of magnetic charges on a specially treated plastic disc. Over time, the charges representing data weaken to the point that floppy drives can’t read them anymore. At that point, the contents of the disk are effectively lost.

This becomes particularly troubling when we consider that publishers began releasing software on floppy disk over 30 years ago. Most of those disks are now unreadable, and the software stored on them has become garbled beyond repair. If you’ve been meaning to back up those old floppies in your attic, I have bad news: it’s probably too late.

Actually, the situation is even worse than that, because software publishers in the 1980s spent a huge amount of effort trying to make it impossible to copy their programs, through the use of things like hardware dongles that had to be plugged into the computer, or intentionally-corrupt sectors on the discs. That makes the creation of backups a non-trivial matter.

Fortunately, getting around such schemes is just the kind of challenge that hackers enjoy, and this has led to efforts by enthusiasts to preserve these fast-disappearing cultural artefacts by transferring them from the old media to more modern storage. As Edwards explains:

For the past decade, collectors and archivists have been compiling vast collections of out-of-print software for vintage machines (think Apple II, Commodore 64, and the like) and trading them through file sharing services and on “abandonware” websites. Through this process, they’ve created an underground software library that, despite its relative newness, feels like the lost archives of an ancient digital civilization.

That’s great, apart from one slight problem: under today’s copyright laws, all these wonderful backups that will probably ensure the programs’ survival while civilization itself is still around, are illegal. The choice is stark: follow copyright law, and watch decades of computer culture literally fade away on their unreadable floppies, or save them for posterity – and break the law.

Nor is this is a problem that only concerns antediluvian forms of computing. Our cool, smartphone- and tablet-based approach is no better:

take a look at the iTunes App Store, a 500,000 app repository of digital culture. It’s controlled by a single company, and when it closes some day (or it stops supporting older apps, like Apple already did with the classic iPod), legal access to those apps will vanish. Purchased apps locked on iDevices will meet their doom when those gadgets stop working, as they are prone to do. Even before then, older apps will fade away as developers decline to pay the $100 a year required to keep their wares listed in the store.

This is a deep and fundamental problem with not just computing culture, but all artistic expression that is locked down with DRM. The only way that its glories will be preserved for future generations is if considerate “pirates” make illegal back-up copies, stripped of copy protection. For DRM is a guarantee of oblivion: the term of copyright is so disproportionately long, few will care about breaking ancient DRM to make backups of long-forgotten digital creations when it eventually becomes legally permissible to do so.

Edwards concludes with a call to action:

If you see strict DRM and copy protection that threatens the preservation of history, fight it: copy the work, keep it safe, and eventually share it so it never disappears.

Some people may think ill of your archival efforts now, but they’re on the wrong side of history: no one living 500 years from now will judge your infringing deeds harshly when they can load up an ancient program and see it for themselves.

This is a crucial point: whatever qualms people might have about piracy now, posterity will have no doubts whatsoever. It’s not simply that the supposed harms of piracy to culture are exaggerated, as more and more evidence suggests: it’s that in the long term, piracy is actually indispensable for its preservation.

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Comments on “Why Piracy Is Indispensable For The Survival Of Our Culture”

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Skeptical Cynic (profile) says:

Piracy would not be needed...

If everybody would realize that if I buy something, anything I own it. Those ownership rights do not die ever, even with my own death. Property rights are important in so many ways, but we ignore them to often.

When I buy a computer I own it, but if I buy software to run on that computer I (in fact) am only renting that software.

Soft goods like software, DRM’ed music or games are only mine until they are blocked or broken by some new update to protect me.

Property rights need to be the focus. If I buy a song should I not be able to do whatever I want with it? Play it on any device I want? If I buy software should I not be able to resell it or transfer ownership?

I think it is way too funny to hear about the MPAA/RIAA complaining about unauthorized music via download. When the easiest way to get music to share is via their preferred method. CD’s. I can copy a CD a million times.

Skeptical Cynic (profile) says:

Re: Re: Piracy would not be needed...

I agree!!!! Property is not just limited to actual land. Would you be mad if you bought chicken and then found out that the right only extended to baking it, but frying was not allowed? Same thing when it comes to buying a song. Buy it but you are only allowed to use it this way, not that way.

Greevar (profile) says:

Re: Re: Piracy would not be needed...

I understand how you feel and I sympathize. Eminent domain is supposed to be used in cases where they need private property to use for things that provide for the public good, but this is more often being abused to take away people’s homes so the next Walmart or such can move in and boost tax revenues or the local government officers can get their pockets padded. It is frustrating to think that your home can be taken away if a commercial interest manages to butter up your local government enough to invoke eminent domain.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Piracy would not be needed...

Yes, I find it funny, and in the same time infuriating, how the content industry keeps pushing the idea that creative works are “property” (forever) – which is clearly not the case because they are just ideas, but that’s another discussion – but in the same time they don’t actually allow you to “own” a song that you buy and they give you “licenses” to the song, which come with severe restrictions. So much for believing that content is property.

Skeptical Cynic (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

We all judge. Period. We judge on our experiences and thus our formed opinions. They are individual and thus judge. Just like you judge with your comment.

As an individual you can do nothing but judge when you offer an opinion. My opinion is just that, my judgement on their opinion. Just as is yours.

Greevar (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:12 Re squared

I think you’re misstating what you intend to say. What you should say is that Anonymous Shills are judgmental. Even that might be overgeneralizing, but it’s more precise to your point. Shills do commonly exhibit a judgmental attitude that has earned their type a negative image here. It doesn’t apply to all shills, but a large enough number of them do merit the label that we can confidently say that the shills are judgemental.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

As always, it only takes one idiot to intentional misread something to lower the debate into the sewer.

Pay attention. I did not equate pirating an MP3 to rape. I said only that using the concept of “saving culture” as an excuse for widespread piracy is akin to “making wedding nights better” as a justification for rape (and you can add ing “makes my pains go away” as a justification for legalized weed).

There is no attempt to equate rape and piracy. There is only an attempt (though use of an gross over statement) to show that almost any bad act can be justified for some sort of noble cause. Yet, it’s truly bullshit, because that isn’t the intention at all. What Glyn is pushing for is widespread piracy, with the HOPE that it retains some culture. He doesn’t care anywhere near as much about retaining culture, as much as his “right” to pirate it widely.

Justification. It sucks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

But here is the key: Just like any artist, since they control their work, it’s also their choice if the keep it or not. If an artist choose to shred a canvas, that is their choice. You cannot stop them. If a software company decides to destroy all copies of a software package, that is their choice, not yours.

“Cultural considerations” really just don’t apply here.

Another AC says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Except that if i buy a reproduction of said canvas they cannot force me to also shred it or come to my house and dump black paint on it, which would be similar to DRM when server are taken offline. If I buy software it should be MINE to do with as I please just like physical objects.

As has been said many times here, if you want complete control over a non tangible good, don’t release it to the public.

Modplan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I would say that John Carmack disagrees.

Matthaigh: Did you encounter any problems when porting the code to iPhone/touch? Such as APIs you used?

It went very smoothly. The prBoom codebase that I based it on already compiled for OS X, so there wasn?t much grunt work, and I had all the device specific IO code that I developed for Wolfenstein Classic. Being able to take advantage of the GPL code that other people have maintained and improved over the years has been very satisfying for me. I always argued that we got worthwhile intangible benefits from my policy of releasing the source code to the older games, but with Wolfenstein Classic and DOOM Classic I can now point to significant amounts of labor that I was personally saved. In fact, the products probably never would have existed at all if my only option was to work from the original ?dusty deck? source code for the games. If we were even able to find the original code at all. Hooray for open source!


It’s even worse for the games industry, a medium far younger, yet encumbered by copyright in such a way that practically the only equivalent of any significant public domain is thanks to source code releases, IP infringing emulators and abandonware archive sites.

These aren’t artists choosing to destroy or limit their own work. These are works being left behind precisely thanks to overbearing copyright laws and idiots such as yourself who are so focused on the short term you crap one everyone else after you.

Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Which shows the real problem with current copyright. The content production industries have taken what was originally a short term legal right granted to them by representatives of the people (that would be us), and used their political clout to turn it into a permanent moral right without any input from the majority (again that would be us), thereby completely going back on the contract they entered into with the public. We are finally starting to see the push-back on this state of affairs from the people (the protests against SOPA/PIPA, and now ACTA). So maybe it’s time for all concerned parties (that means the people too, not just the content producers) to sit down and rethink how copyright can be restructured to the benefit of all.

JMT says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“Just like any artist, since they control their work, it’s also their choice if the keep it or not.”

They “control” their work via copyright, which is supposed to be a deal between the creator and the public where after a limited time period of control, the content is released into the public domain. Thanks to constant strengthening of copyright laws, that deal has effectively been broken by copyright holders, most of whom now think the way you clearly do, with absolutely no consideration for the second part of the deal. Since you’ve failed to respect the deal, why should we?

The fact that technology has made copying so easy, combined with the declining respect people have for copyright for the reasons I’ve stated, mean that it’s not really “their choice” any more. And in the long-term, culture can only benefit as a result.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

So you are ok with the destruction of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan by those people there?

Or the burning of books, or the persecution of artists, you see China killed all their intellectuals in the great purge, Vietnam did the same.

Is not their choice copyright was created to facilitate the transfer of knowledge to the public domain not to grant powers to idiots to let be lost.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Umm where the fuck did you get that idea from?

If I am an artist, and I make a painting, do I somehow owe it to culture not to destroy it? Am I somehow restrained from doing it, is there a law against it?

If I sell you a copy, and you choose to retain the copy until the copyright is done, you can do what you want with it. But if I chose to destroy my original copies, you cannot barge in and peel them from my hands and hold them until copyright expires.

The same goes for my digital photographs. You have no rights to take them and store them in a backup against my will. If I sell you a copy, you can do what you like with them under the license I grant you. But making “backups” for all of your friends isn’t part of the deal.

The public domain is what it is. There is no legal requirement that I must maintain my work until it arrives at that point, nor is there any legal way you can force me to do so.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“The fact that you would compare such a terrible act to copying software shows only one thing that you are nothing more than a bought and paid for ASS. “

What is funny is that you are so completely wrong here, which means you probably have everything else ASS backwards as well.

Sorry to disappoint you.

Bengie says:

Re: Re:

Culture is piracy(general term of free sharing). One and the same. Language, Math, Logic, everything falls under piracy.

If you had an idea, it’s because you’ve learned to think from someone, probably your parents. That’s “copying” ideas. Every ideas any has had or will have is because they “stole” it from somewhere.

To hate piracy is to hate life.

Robert Doyle (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think part of the difficulty comes from the inability to actually make those back-ups because the DRM or rights assigned don’t legally permit it.

I also do not think it is moronic to put a sheen of virtue – people do it all the time in other areas when they feel a law should be changed (such as the one preventing women and non-whites from voting). Through explaining the virtue that some might not see, you hope to convert them to your way of thinking – which is not immoral or moronic.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re:

Justifying piracy as a way to save culture is like justifying rape as a way to make wedding nights easier for new brides.

There are a ton of TV shows that have never been released on DVD, and which can’t be seen by any other method besides piracy. If not for the copies floating around the net, they’d be lost. Sure, the networks have copies of them, but they’re locked away in their vault, and will never see the light of day.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If you’d go back and read the article again about the life expectancy of a floppy disk and the lengths gone to by the likes of Lotus and others to make sure you couldn’t make an archival backups perhaps you’d understand.

While, personally I’m more interested in the data the games and programming techniques of 30 years ago are interesting in their own right as are what they accomplished and set in motion.

Personally I don’t give a damn about copyright. If I can find a way to read a floppy from the CP/M days or earlier and bitwise copy it to a directory on a CD or DVD I’m gonna do it just to archive it. If you’re of a mind sue me. Ought to be fun standing up in court defending archival non commercial copies against an IP purist.

Keroberos (profile) says:

few will care about breaking ancient DRM to make backups of long-forgotten digital creations when it eventually becomes legally permissible to do so.

Also, unless current laws are changed breaking the DRM on them will be always illegal regardless of whether the file is under copyright or not. Gotta love section 1201 of the DMCA, permanent copyright protection for all DRM’d digital files.


Re: Example:

In reference to “pirates” preserving Dr. Who episodes; yes it is true. If somebody hadn’t failed to destroy 16mm prints as they were ordered, the shows would not be viewable today.

It’s not an isolated case. I knew a film collector who was approached by 20th Century Fox in regards to a magnetic sound print he had. The color had long since faded but the magnetic tracks were still playable, which the film companys copies were not. He rejected any financial offer but insisted that he receive a document stating that he now owned that print and they agreed. I doubt if his case is unique.

Miko says:

Another good example is the BBC show Doctor Who. The BBC destroyed their copies of many episodes broadcast in the 1960’s-70’s to save space. Now the BBC wants to release all of the old episodes on DVD and so, of course, is trying to restore the episodes by actively colluding with the people who ‘pirated’ the broadcast when it was aired. If it weren’t for the pirates, this piece of our cultural history would have been lost for good.

Robert Doyle (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Example:

I don’t think the point of the article was to justify piracy as a new means of distribution (although that argument has been made…) but to show that what someone today thinks is a grand idea to preserve their income can actually hurt the entity they are supposed to be working for in the long run.

The point that I have taken away from all of these piracy arguments is that it isn’t black and white like the Jolly Roger.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Example:

Don’t you think that, rather that “justifying piracy”, it might justify having something like, I dunno, the library of congress?

What Glyn tried to do is make the ends justify the means. There are plenty of much better, and much more certain ways to preserve culture than piracy. If piracy is the best answer to cultural preservation, we are doomed.

“The point that I have taken away from all of these piracy arguments is that it isn’t black and white like the Jolly Roger.”

No, of course it isn’t black and white. The real issue isn’t the wonderful and noble goals that are put forward here, rather it’s the knock on effects of every straight up pirate hiding behind this concept to get free stuff.

Imagine, instead of “The Pirate Bay”, you have “The Cultural Bay”. Download files to help preserve culture. It is easy to see how the greedy and the sneaky would jump right in there to get what they wanted, with no regard for culture, just with regard to their “entertainment for free” goal of the day.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Example:

But “piracy” is only what the law defines it to be – and here it turns out that the law applies that label to something that is, as you say, wonderful and noble. So isn’t that a problem with the law? It the Library of Congress started a program to back up and preserve abandonware, it would still be illegal. So if copyright law prevents the noble preservation of culture, then until that is fixed it is entirely fair to say that “piracy is indispensable”, isn’t it?

JMT says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Example:

“What Glyn tried to do is make the ends justify the means. There are plenty of much better, and much more certain ways to preserve culture than piracy.”

So in the context of this article, can you explain what other “much better, and much more certain ways to preserve culture” could be used, and in fact whether they actually are being used. I got the impression little is being done, so people should take matters into their own hands. Please demonstrate how I’m wrong.

“If piracy is the best answer to cultural preservation, we are doomed.”

That’s some extraordinarily narrow thinking you’re demonstrating there. I’d be a bit embarrassed by that…

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Example:

Given the IP walls built around content these days piracy may, indeed, be the only way to preserve much of our culture. Curiously most of the people doing the pirating blissfully unaware that that is what they’re doing. They like something so they make a copy and store it away.

Quite honestly I can get far better entertainment for “free” watching children in a playground or adults at a craft fair and many other places and things than Hollywood provides most days.


Re: Example:

It’s ironic. Several of the DW dvds include short segments, sometimes less than once minute, shot with an 8mm camera off a tv screen. Then they find the soundtrack, recorded by another kid with a cassette or reel-to-reel recorder and sync them. So these kids are heroes for saving at least a minute or two of a lost episode. If the same kid tries it in a movie theater he is arrested, fined, maybe kicked out of school, whatever. So it’s not the act that gets somebody in trouble, it’s the rarity (or lack of) of the pirated material.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Patents and Prior Art

Hadn’t even thought about that angle – but it’s a great point, and links up with suggestions for a “prior art database” for software that I’ve heard tossed around. Maybe abandonware sites are that database.

Sadly, prior art seems to have held very little weight in the world of software patents so far… but that definitely needs to change.

Gwiz (profile) says:

This article is a good argument for reducing copyright terms back to the original 14 years + another 14 years renewal. That’s 28 years max. Some of this stuff could be saved legally (except for the circumventing the DRM part) because it would be in the public domain by now.

Just goes to show that what public gains from granting copyright monopolies really is nonexistent at this point.

Skeptical Cynic (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I agree. No names but I public domain-ed my pretty successful songs (sort of) over 27 years ago. I declined the renewal for just that reason. As a 7-10 year old I was acclaimed as a vocal prodigy and recorded renditions of several non-copyrighted songs. Made me enough to pay for college. But when I hit the age where I could not reproduce them I gave up all rights to those versions because I understood that nothing would make them valuable again. I wanted them to be saved for everyone. Review them good or bad. But just save them for everyone to hear.

Daddy Warbucks says:

Re: Another Term 4 creativity

Totally reasonable to give a TERM limit to copyright. 14+14yrs or a total of 30yrs is what’s best for WE THE PEOPLE.

Monopolies NEVER work out for WE THE PEOPLE. Competition is nature’s version of creativity and should be perpetuated for the betterment of the whole living system. The hording Gollum’s of the world need to be given a smack down along with their bribed lackeys.

Beta (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I didn’t think of Fahrenheit 451(*), but I got a mental image of a secret cabal preserving forbidden texts until the day they could be revealed, which led me straight to the last scene of The Lorax and a line beautifully delivered by John Hurt in “1984”: “April the 4th, 1984. To the past, or to the future. To an age when thought is free. From the Age of Big Brother, from the Age of the Thought Police, from a dead man… greetings.”

(*) note use of italics to indicate book title and double-quotes for film title /grammarNazi

Anonymous Coward says:

i dont like the word piracy, its a slur used by people to invoke bad fweelings towards “pirates”

Is’nt there a better word we can use, or are we waiting for that unique phenomenon that sometimes happens, where a word suddenly means something else to what it was originally intended, because a few vocal groups take exception to the slur

Anonymous Coward says:

To anyone thinking “it’s just old programs, who cares” I have two words for you. Oregon Trail. Yeah. You enjoyed dying of dysentery and you know it. Think of a world where you couldn’t do that because someone hadn’t made a copy of it and uploaded for your use once the publisher disappears.

Now shutup and get in the wagon. I’ve got plenty of Oxen, Ammo, Guns, and nothing else.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re:

There are still a lot of fans of the older systems. Commodore, Atari, Apple, etc, all have thriving online communities. Many people use emulators to run the software, but many also use the real hardware. In fact, new products are still being made for them. Today, you can get a cartridge that plugs into a C64, which acts as a virtual disk drive, loading software from disk images stored on memory cards or USB drives.

The Logician says:

Another example of a work saved by unauthorized copying is the film Nosferatu. An entire post was done about it here at Techdirt some time ago, though I do not have the link to it at present. But this classic of horror cinema would not have survived had its creator and others not acted in defiance of copyright law in order to preserve it.

Dionaea (profile) says:


And once again you’re missing the point.

“If I sell you a copy, and you choose to retain the copy until the copyright is done, you can do what you want with it.”

Except in this case the artists evil sales manager has set the copy he’s sold to be uncopyable and self combust after a certain amount of time, making it necessary to create an illegal copy if you actually want to preserve anything.

The article isn’t trying to justify mass sharing of these copies, but definitely sheds a light on some of the negative effects of copyright and positive ones of pirating.

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