Feel free to protect your copyrights, just don't take away mine.
I was preparing an epic article in response to this one from Oddthinking. However, it’s become clear that progress on that article is going backwards rather than forwards, so I’m going to give an intuitive explanation rather than a drawn out technical one as to why I think piracy is sometimes ethical. I am not going to talk about laws here, because people talk about piracy as being morally wrong as opposed to simply illegal or legally ambiguous.
RMS uses as much free (as in speech) software and hardware as possible. His computer is a very esoteric Yeeloong netbook running on a Loongson processor, which is “open source”. Even among the free software community, he is sometimes seen as uptight and stalwart about an issue that’s had its day. However, if ordinary people read and understood EULAs and cared, they too would be joining RMS in running as much free software as possible. This also isn’t an idle issue. With Oracle taking over Sun and the direction of Java and the OpenJDK, as well as suing Google for parts of Dalvik, enforcing and protecting your right to do what you want with the stuff you own is a ripe battleground for lawyers.
... and nobody cares.
In “the real world”, if I’m looking for a job, I need to submit my resume in Microsoft Word, or it will be dropped like a hat. The format for MS Word has been entirely opaque, and no one in the world can write to it in a reliable way other than Microsoft. Either I have to pay for it, or I need some assistance — going to a library, or somewhere which provides a computer with the relevant software on there. No matter what, I will either have to directly or indirectly pay for a specific piece of software made by a specific company. I literally do not have a choice in the matter. Worse, trying to educate others usually falls on deaf ears.
The force doesn’t need to be so stark. Sometimes, it’s a soft power — being excluded from a group because you don’t listen to the same music, or watch the same movies. You might say the same is true of clothing, but in a world where you can be wearing the exact same clothes but for the label, is that not a copyright issue? Having a fake Gucci bag or fake CK jeans is purely intellectual property.
Keep in mind that it is only the copyright holders — often not the musicians themselves — that object to the piracy. Many musicians feel it is fine to pirate their music, but this is still an illegal act, since the musicians themselves don’t own the copyright on what they are advocating pirating. Arguably the musicians are doing something ethically wrong. However, it is well understood that the musician owns the spiritual right over the music. Otherwise the musicians would say something like “My music is owned by Sony and advocating pirating their copyright would be unethical”. The law and contracts as they stand are just bullshit mumbo-jumbo in the minds of these musicians — a necessary evil to continue doing what they love. If they truly knew what they were getting themselves into, many more musicians would be making music a different way.
So I’ve (allegedly) pirated some things, partly because I needed to get something done; partly because I couldn’t afford it; partly because I was angry that I was forced by a comatose society into using something I don’t want to use. Partly because I was angry at the offending company for leveraging that comatose society to take advantage of me. For similar reasons to me, I suspect, everyone pirates things. Ultimately (and unfortunately), that’s the behaviour that forces others to pirate things — because it becomes a de-facto standard, the “force” that pushes you into the “buying” decision is all the greater because of everyone else using the same software — legally or not.
Nowadays, you can’t even buy a DVD player or some similar item without the company you bought it from notionally owning some part of it. My video card comes with something called “High Definition Content Protection”. One of my two monitors doesn’t support it, so for no real technical reason, some things I want to do don’t work. Changing my computer so that it does work is illegal.
There are choices that I could make so that I didn’t pirate anything — Don’t watch any DVDs (or non-free video), listen to any music owned by a label, don’t apply for any jobs where they won’t take a PDF, and run the kind of software-hardware combination that RMS runs. I wonder if I could do that without having the a-priori notoriety of RMS and still live a fulfilled existence.
In short, non-substitution of software, social power-structures and ownership issues enforces monopolies on technology, and that’s wrong. Piracy is a way around that, but really the injustice is in what the companies do to us, not what we do to the companies.