Looking for the yo ho ho

Piracy is bad, right? This we know without question. It denies the producer of intellectual property legitimate rights to the revenue, ownership and distribution of their products.

Piracy is bad, right? This we know without question. It denies the producer of intellectual property legitimate rights to the revenue, ownership and distribution of their products.

The consumers of pirated goods don’t necessarily see the issue in such pristine black and white. They – being most of us in a weaker moment buying overseas using funny money - suffer only the odd twinge of wannabe-Catholic guilt related mostly to the minuscule chance of getting caught or chastised by those of sterner business-ethics fibre. And pirates, like the bloodthirsty buccaneers they’re named after, of course think all plunder is good. The returns outweigh the risks.

But setting aside arguments about fair use, and the relative positions of pushers and users of “content” in terms of legal and market strength, is it possible to make an argument for piracy that considers the interests of producers?

Wandering the market stalls in Shanghai last month, it was impossible for me not to notice that particular types and brands of product were everywhere (as were the persistent types trying to sell it to you). The North Face snow jackets, absolutely everywhere. DVDs, offered under the counter every five steps. Franck Muller, Vacheron Constantin watches? Come down this alley, sir, and up these rickety stairs.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for the brand manager for The North Face, but then, isn’t there a huge advertising value in thousands of travellers parading your brand around the airports of the world – particularly those who for the most part would never consider buying your product were it not ruinously cheap?

DVDs? The same person might buy illegitimate movies for $2 in a Chinese market but still be willing to pay 20 or 30 times that for legitimate arthouse titles that the pirates will never get to. Why? Because market price – and perceived value -- is variable, depending on context. Punters have a much stronger guarantee that the DVD will be a full-featured, working title in a nice shiny plastic box. Its liner notes will be legible and phrased in beautiful publicity speak. A resold copy has good value whereas a rip-off copy doesn't, but then neither transaction gives money back to the copyright holder.

Until everyone joins the WTO and enforces its intellectual property agreements, it seems, it’s best not to make your product a global, trendy brand if you don’t want to be pirated. If it does become flavour of the moment, perhaps you clamp down in public but privately enjoy the value of those free walking ads. Don’t worry, you’ll soon be out of vogue – for pirates, just about a week after consumers go off you.

It’s a tough business being a pirate: you have to keep a close eye on capricious taste and match the quality of the original (for those picky Westerners with their Lonely Planet guides and lighters ready to check for kosher leather goods). I couldn’t help wondering if the contracted manufacturers of Western goods in Asia turned over their factories to producing identical knock-offs every second week. Seems like the kind of thing even Naomi Klein would have a laugh about.

Broatch is Computerworld's deputy editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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