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Why do we all engage in piracy?

There is a serious crime that most of us have committed at some point in our lives. I have done it and, in all likelihood, so have you. It involves stealing from others; denying people their rightful livelihood and pocketing it for yourself.

Not guilty, you shout? Don’t be too sure.

I am referring to the crime of piracy – not the type that occurs regularly off the Somali coast, but the much more invidious and damaging felony that occurs every day in shops, living rooms and on the Internet. The piracy that consists of unauthorised reproduction of the intellectual or artistic property of others. The support of that common act of theft is everyone’s dirty little secret.

In Kenya we have a very serious issue. As much as 90 per cent of the software used in this country is estimated to be pirated. Most of the music we buy is on bootleg tapes and CDs. Even the book trade is suffering: the Kenyan publishing industry thinks it loses hundreds of millions of shillings every year to book pirates. You and I are not the ones doing the illegal copying; but we are certainly the ones buying the illegal goods and supporting this nasty trade.

This what we do: make an illegal copy of popular software; visit all those shady shops in dark corners to buy cheap music CDs; buy photocopied versions of textbooks for our children; purchase remarkably cheap DVDs of hit movies; lend our original software CDs to our friends and relatives to load onto their computers; send ‘single-use’ downloads to everyone we know; buy a cheap watch branded ‘Rolex’ or ‘Omega’ to impress our friends. Are you telling me you’ve never done any of that? Congratulations, you are a member of a very small, very select club.

Most Kenyans just do not consider doing any of those things a crime; and the government shows no inclination to enforce the law in this regard. No enforcement plus no guilt? A recipe for total proliferation – which is what we have. Some sectors are believed to trade 100 per cent in pirated goods. If we didn’t buy the stuff, the market wouldn’t exist. So why do we do it?

There are many reasons. First and foremost, if something is cheap, we seem to have the ability to switch off our moral compass and throw all sense of principle out of the window. The colours black and white leave our eyes, and everything becomes shades of grey. I get this DVD for Sh. 500, when the original costs Sh. 2,000? My child gets an essential textbook for Sh. 200, when the publisher wants Sh. 800 for the proper version? No-brainer! Here’s the money, and I’m outa here. If we save some money, it seems, we care not a jot about the source of the advantage we’re getting.

Yet that does not explain it all. Many people who would not dream of buying obviously stolen goods – a TV stolen from a house in a potentially bloody robbery; or a car whose number plates have been changed – will cough up for a dodgy CD without any hesitation. There is another sentiment at play in buying pirated goods: we think we’re getting one over the big corporations.

Microsoft and Sony and Warner Music have enough money, we argue; it’s time the little guy (me) got something. They charge too much, we complain – this is our way of bringing them into line. Many of us think we’re getting at the government, which is denied revenue from pirated goods. Or we imagine we’re supporting some brave young fellows somewhere who are taking risks to make expensive things available to poor Kenyans.

All of that is hogwash. For one thing, a moment’s thought would tell you that something as globally widespread as piracy cannot be the work of little Robin Hoods. It is a well-established fact that the global supply chains and mass reproduction facilities that enable piracy are linked with large, organised crime networks. And if you think people like that are doing something good for society, then you are being wilfully stupid. The very same people are involved in drug-trafficking, human slavery and pornography, amongst other very serious crimes. So you are attacking big, legitimate business to benefit big, illegitimate business. Still sound sensible?

Another moment of thought might reveal another insight: all those songs, books and films are created by individuals. When you buy a bootleg version of your favourite singer’s latest hit, you are denying that artiste his or her due. The creative people who generate good books, good songs and other good works of art are the ones who really suffer from piracy. They spend the hours dreaming up beautiful stuff and crafting it to perfection; and then some low-life crooks pocket much of the proceeds. Why does it work? Because the crooks give you and me a cut in the form of a low price. We are bribed to participate in crime, and we appear to accept without question.

So this is what we do when we buy cheap-but-illegal stuff: we support international crime syndicates; we undermine those who try to do business honestly; and we hit the pockets of those who are the creators of art, entertainment and software – all the good things we like to consume but want to get at silly prices. In the long run, we devastate incentives: why should hard-working people keep producing the good stuff when someone else who puts in no work whatsoever (other than bootlegging it) gets to take a huge chunk of the returns? Microsoft and other global giants won’t be forced to close down by the pirates, but thousands of creative little people might think of doing something else.

These are clearly things we don’t want to think about. And so we all line up at the exhibitions stalls to buy cheap. Yet this is not something done by poor businesspeople selling to poor buyers: some of Nairobi’s top retailers are part and parcel of the piracy racket. Or are you telling me a computer dealer selling you a PC has never offered to ‘throw in’ some ‘free’ software, ‘on the house’? Or that you have any idea where that video you rent comes from?

It comes down to individual decisions. If we all want to keep doing this, the industry will keep booming. But it never ceases to surprise me that people coming out of churches and temples head straight for dodgy music shops without a second thought. Or that the pillars of our society, rich as Croesus, will copy a friend’s software without blinking.

It doesn’t really matter why you do it – no one benefits. If you are poor, engaging in little thefts won’t haul you out of poverty; it will only entrench your victim mentality. If you are in business, refusing to pay the right price does not make you shrewd – just shady. Uplift does not come from the underhand; society does not become fairer by all of us aiding and abetting crime. We all do it, in ignorance or otherwise; we should all stop.

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