Is it possible to write about piracy without encouraging it?

By Nathaniel Mott , written on January 3, 2013

From The News Desk

Alright, people really, really don't like paying for software. Following Monday's announcement that Hackulous, the company behind the popular piracy-slash-trial (not that there's much of a difference there) Installous, would be shutting down operations, people have lost their damn minds.

The community's reaction wasn't great on Monday. In my original story on Installous' death, in which I compared the "I just want to try an app before I buy it" defense to stealing from an ice cream shop, I linked to a few of the many comments defending piracy, bemoaning Installous' demise, and transforming a conversation about app piracy into something to do with Obama and welfare and some other such nonsense. I figured this would be the end of the discussion, as the tech scene isn't particularly well known for its long attention span. It was not.

Arguing about piracy isn't new, and when something like Installous' death gets as much attention as it did, follow-up stories and me-too software is a given. Or, to repurpose a tired meme: "Bloggers gonna blog, and pirates gonna pirate." Yet as numerous blog posts about competing services spread the word about piracy-enabling tools, one has to wonder if it's possible to write about piracy without expanding its reach.

CNET kicked things off with a blog post from Christopher MacManus, linking to two Installous alternatives and offering the impression that, in CNET's words, "gave some readers the impression that the author, and by extension CNET, condones illegal activities such as piracy." The post has been updated to remove mention of the alternatives and make MacManus' position a bit clearer. Cough.

Things went a bit further yesterday with reports of a new service, developed by a 15-year-old, ostensibly meant to make it easier for iOS users to download and install Apps without jailbreaking ("unlocking") their devices. The developer says that it was never his intent to encourage piracy, and that the next version of the service – which is itself a paid service, fittingly enough – will "harshly discourage" the installation of pirated apps.

That a tool like this was developed isn't surprising. Neither is the developer saying that he didn't intend for his tool to be used for piracy – he, like many of the Installous fanbase, emphasized the "try before you buy" capabilities of the tool. But the fact that this tool, along with another (this one presumably developed by someone old enough to vote) got passed around from blog to blog, openly linked to and mentioned, is.

Is it possible to write about piracy without encouraging, or at least informing, its act? I imagine that if we were talking about the original pirates, swashbuckling vagabonds battling both the sea and scurvy, the answer would be "yes." But on the Web, the infrastructure that makes this kind of theft possible? I'm not so sure. Offering the name of – or, worse, a link to – a piracy tool simply makes it that much easier for people who want to steal something.

It could be argued that this information is freely available anyway, or that people who want to steal something will find a way to do so without any outside help, or that informing readers trumps everything else. And, to an extent, that argument is sound – people are free to use the Web as they please, and a simple Google search would likely offer any information a would-be pirate might desire.

But is it right to make it any easier for readers? Is there a way to inform without enabling piracy? That's what I, and others, have attempted. You'll notice that I didn't name either of the piracy tools that have been making the rounds, and I sure as hell didn't link to them. I debated mentioning the developer's age, as even that might be enough for the truly dedicated to find what I'm talking about, but ultimately decided that it's a little detail that won't make much difference in the long run.

This entire issue is a can of writhing, wriggling worms suffering from gigantism. (Or, put another way, really messy.) An objective press has a responsibility to report on every notable event, and piracy is clearly a big part of the tech ecosystem. Of course, those same writers then have a responsibility to not bemoan the death of one of these tools and to make it clear that these tools aren't about "trying" anything. They're about thievery.

So, annoyingly, I don't have an answer to my original question. Writing about piracy is, frankly, many of these reporters' – and my – job, and we have yet to find a good way to do so without becoming part of the problem.