Face Off: Is it ethical to pirate a game you've already paid for?

PC Gamer

In this week's Face Off debate , T.J. climbs the mast with a cutlass in his teeth to proclaim that if a company already has its share of his plunder, he should be able to recover his lost booty in whatever way is most expedient. Please, no more booty analogies, says Logan , who believes that piracy is gross, even when you might be entitled to the thing you're pirating, and prefers that we don't hasten the collapse of civilization by participating in it.

Read the debate below, add your argument in the comments, and jump to the next page for opinions from the community. T.J., you have the floor:

The Debate

T.J.: Piracy is a topic more loaded than the six flintlocks I have strapped to various areas of my body, so I'll be treading lightly on this particular gangplank. The way I see it, in the very simplest terms, is this: I paid money for this software. I am not an organized person. The disk could be anywhere between here and the Caribbean at this point. If there's an easy way to reclaim access to my purchase that might take me into morally grey waters, then so be it.

Logan: I know what you mean. I'd be doomed if services such as Steam and Gog.com didn't let me download my games over and over again. That's why they're valuable to me, and why I tolerate their occasional blunders. But I bought a lot of games before these services were available. I knew at the time that the disc was the only access I had to what I purchased, and that it was only designed to work with the PC and OS I used at the time.

Since then, I've lost some of these discs. In other cases, the games are no longer compatible with the PC and operating system I use. Now, I think it would be nice if a publisher helped me out with another copy of the game or made it work with newer operating systems, but I don't think it's required to compensate for my choices or carelessness. So, if you forgot that you lent a game out to a friend, why do you think that you're entitled to “reclaim access” to it by downloading a pirated copy?

T.J.: Because I gain value, and no one else loses it. It's win-win. Or at least, win-wash. The harmless pursuit of value and fun shouldn't be seen as a crime. I might even argue it's a right. If you lend your light-up Fantastic Four action figure to a friend in 1996 and he never, ever gives it back (you know who you are), you can't just replicate that with Internet bandwidth that you probably weren't using anyway.

Software is all bits and bytes flowing through a system that never runs at full capacity. I'm not removing anything from a pool of goods or resources that prevents someone else from having or using it. I'm just getting back the code I already purchased, albeit in a slightly different format.

Logan: First of all, we weren't asking if downloading a pirated copy of Full Throttle would retroactively bankrupt a publisher. We were asking if it's ethical.

Second, it's only painless and unobtrusive to you. Piracy is an enormous problem in our industry: How is it possible to download a pirated copy of a game without directly supporting piracy? Aren't you browsing pirate sites that make money off their “Meet a Bored Housewife” ads? Aren't you seeding a torrent at the same time as you're downloading it?

T.J.: Torrenting is only one way to get game code outside of official channels. Not all torrent sites advertise shady business enterprises, and there are ways around being forced to upload while you download (depending on the tracker being used). I'll admit that most people who obtain these games unofficially probably don't care about some or any of the above, but again, we're talking ethics here.

Is it possible to get code, unofficially, for a game that you no longer have access to your original copy of, without supporting people who are downloading it without buying it, or getting it from a site that advertises Eastern European mail-order brides? Yes. It is. And independent of that statement, I think it's ethically justifiable. I can elaborate on that, but I need to catch my breath first.

Logan: How is it ethical if it violates the Terms of Service that you agreed to when you bought the game? Did you have your fingers crossed? And you said that you're “disorganized.” Again, how do you know that you didn't loan your single copy of the game out to a friend? Doesn't that make pirating the game unethical?

T.J.: Your premise is: Maybe I loaned it to a friend. Your conclusion is: That makes getting a new copy of the code unethical. In studying logic, we call that an “I don't see how you even made that leap” fallacy.

What I'm trying to say here is that if you paid for the code, it doesn't matter, ethically, how you choose to access that code. It doesn't have to be a torrent. Maybe you ripped a friend's CD and are running it with a small tweak so you don't need the disk. We don't need to make this about bittorrent, because it's not essential to either side of the argument.

Logan: My point is that you believe that your carelessness justifies downloading a pirated copy of a game, even if your traffic helps keep pirate sites alive.

Let's take this from another angle: Say you owe me $1.50. Actually, I think you do. Is it OK if I bust into your apartment without your consent and look around for $1.50 in change? It's my money, after all. And I won't break anything, kill your pets, or remove anything that prevents you from using it later. You won't even know I was there. But that's not ethical, because I can't make that decision unilaterally.

Look, no one's going to launch a drone attack because your disc is scratched so you re-installed a game from a friend's disc—even though that may technically violate the Terms of Service. But patronizing pirate sites is beyond the pale.

T.J.: That generating ad revenue and seed traffic for such sites is reprehensible, I can't refute—and I don't care to try. But your example about the $1.50 is still dealing with physical goods. It's physically invasive. Which copying data from a server isn't. In this modern era, it's just as thoughtless for a company to expect you to buy a second copy of a game that you lost. We have the technology, and they should be expected to offer you the code you bought. In some cases, you couldn't even purchase a replacement if you wanted to.

Logan: There's no confusion between digital and scarce goods here. You're saying, in effect, “I paid for it at one point and the publisher's not losing anything, so what's the big deal?” And I'd compare that to saying “You don't know that I was in your house, so who cares if it's physically invasive?”

The things we do matter, even if we aren't—or we think that we aren't—hurting anybody else. Trying to justify pirating games because you paid for them at one time suggests that one doesn't think much of one's own responsibility. The industry is only as good as what we put into it. By being better gamers, better consumers, and more responsible people, we can legitimately expect the folks we do business with to do the same.

T.J.: Alright, fine. I see what this is really about. I'll clean my freaking apartment, jeez... Hey, is that Baldur's Gate under that empty crate of ramen?

That's the debate! As always, these debates are exercises meant to reveal alternate view points and cultivate discussion, so continue it in the comments, and jump to the next page for more opinions from the community.

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