What is piracy? Here's what you need to know about digital piracy, and how to avoid stolen digital content

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What is piracy? Here's what you need to know about digital piracy, and how to avoid stolen digital content
Everyone should be careful to steer clear of illegally pirated content online.Gorkem Yorulmaz/Getty Images
  • Piracy is an illegally copying of protected content that infringes on the owner's copyright.
  • There are a range of reasons why people pirate, including a philosophical desire for all digital data to be free.
  • Content is commonly pirated through peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent as well as cloud services, illegal streaming sites, and online auctions.
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Piracy goes by a lot of very similar names - internet piracy, online piracy, and digital piracy, to name a few - but regardless of what it's called, piracy is the act of illegally copying protected content that infringes on the owner's copyright.

Piracy includes making illegal copies of copyrighted music, games, software, electronic books, and movies - or streaming that content without permission.

What to know about piracy

There's no single motivation for piracy - in fact, digital piracy has many philosophical underpinnings and root causes. A common refrain among pirates is that it's not really theft if you are simply making a digital copy. The original remains, so no one is harmed. That's a shallow argument, of course, because any unauthorized copy is a potential lost sale, which harms the copyright owner. Doing that on a massive scale can cause harm to the owner and reduce the incentive to create more content.

Other pirates have endorsed the idea that all digital content should be free, and the act of piracy is helping to free it. This philosophy ignores the reality that content isn't free to create, and again, there's no incentive to produce more if it's not possible to recover one's investment and make a profit.

Of course, some pirates simply don't want to pay for content.

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Regardless of motivation, theft and unauthorized copying of copyrighted content is illegal, with copyright owners protected by numerous laws. In the realm of music and sound recording, for example, United States Code Title 17 Sections 501 and 506 are federal statutes that authorize severe civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized reproduction, distribution, rental, or digital transmission of copyrighted sound recordings. Other kinds of digital content have their own legal protection as well. Bypassing Digital Rights Management (DRM) software is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The most common sources of online piracy

There are many types of digital content that get pirated, and therefore there are numerous kinds of piracy. Here are some of the most common examples.

  • Streaming sites: Pirates commonly crack movies and set up streaming sites that allow users to watch copyrighted content for free. These sites are easy to find online, but using them entails substantial inconvenience and risk. Watching pirated movies on streaming sites is usually fraught with pop-up ads that block the movie and is a major source for malware (like viruses and ransomware) that can be secretly installed when you visit the site.

    What is piracy? Here's what you need to know about digital piracy, and how to avoid stolen digital content
    When looking for something to watch online, it can be easy to get swept away by "free" streaming sites, but they're often pirated.Milan Markovic/Getty Images
  • Peer-to-peer networks: It's impossible to talk about piracy without mentioning the site that initially best represented widespread piracy. In the late 1990s, music sharing site Napster made it possible for internet users to upload, share, and download music tracks in the then-new MP3 format. Because the premise of Napster was a violation of copyright law, Napster soon was sued and went bankrupt, but the music industry also infamously sued many ordinary users (including minors) for taking part in the service. Peer-to-peer piracy continues to this day. Sites like BitTorrent allow people to share and download copyrighted content at the risk of legal action, and anyone who uses the site can be culpable because these networks store parts of the files on individual user computers - hence the name "peer-to-peer."
  • Cloud services and cyberlockers: Unlike peer-to-peer networks that distribute files across all user computers, some pirates simply store pirated content in the cloud, on common storage sites like Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive. Cloud service owners actively work to eliminate these so-called cyberlockers, but pirates can easily restart new accounts when they're discovered and eliminated.
  • Online auction sites: In the days before the internet, software rental companies had a thin veneer of being reputable, allowing you to try commercial software by "renting" it. You'd be mailed disks and the user guide and need to return the software after a short time - but in reality, it was a haven for pirates who would copy the software (and photocopy the user guide) and then share it with friends. An early form of DRM, in fact, was making user guides that were difficult to photocopy to thwart this kind of piracy. In modern times, auction sites like eBay are commonly used by pirates who illegally sell copies of software applications. You should exercise enormous caution if buying software at a site like that to make sure you're getting unused, factory-fresh software.

How to avoid piracy

The nature of digital media means it's not always obvious when something is stolen or pirated, so if you want to avoid breaking the law and harming creators by reducing their revenue, then you need to be diligent about not supporting piracy.

Ways to prevent the spread of pirated software

If you're concerned about your household or yourself accessing pirated material, there are several ways you can ensure that you're avoiding the downloading or spreading of such material.

  • Use parental controls: If you have kids, use the parental controls on their computers and mobile devices to limit the websites they are allowed to visit.

    What is piracy? Here's what you need to know about digital piracy, and how to avoid stolen digital content
    10'000 Hours/Getty Images
  • Don't use peer-to-peer networks: Due to the underlying technology in peer-to-peer services like BitTorrent, you are materially aiding pirates even if you don't upload or download pirated material yourself - parts of pirated software can be stored on your PC without your knowledge. It's best to avoid these sites entirely.
  • Use mainstream streaming services to watch movies: Don't visit supposedly free streaming sites to watch TV shows and movies - stick with mainstream sites and apps for services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and Disney Plus.
  • Don't download music files from free sites: And don't stream from free streaming sites that aren't supported by ads, for that matter - use well-known sites and apps for services like Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, SoundCloud, and Tidal.
  • If it seems sketchy, it probably is sketchy: Overall, trust your instincts. You can probably tell the difference between a reputable commercial site and a questionable source of pirated information. When in doubt, perform a search to learn about a site or steer clear of it entirely.
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