Last year I wrote an article on reading scans online, specifically, the legal stipulations of reading scans online of manga already physically owned. The overwhelming response was that doing so was illegal.
Last week, meanwhile, in my "Violence in Japanese Film" class (yes, we have a "Violence in Japanese Film" class, next semester's topic for Japanese Culture Studies is "Understanding the J-RPG and Visual Novel", but anyway) a fellow student came in complaining that Funimation had caught her illegally downloading fansubs of FMA Brotherhood, and were 'doing something about it', whatever that means. A good friend of mine was sued $10,000 last semester for torrenting a television show.
Both of these items were available for free, online, via streaming sites by the companies who held licensing rights. To both these people, they would rather download the high resolution version that doesn't need buffering or the internet to access. Both options were free, so why not?
Also, on Joystiq, the video gaming website, there was recently some troubling news that about 90% of copies of the game World of Goo were downloaded illegally. Many fans first doubted this number, but it is fairly easy to calculate: the game asks for a username, to access its online content. Count up all usernames, count up all purchases of the game, and voila, a ratio of people playing said game to people who paid for it.
Once this was sorted out on the site, a new thought stream started, with a comment by the user oto13, stating, "Protip: When you pirate something, you're not taking it, you're copying it. It's like saying if I go into the Louvre and take a picture of the Mona Lisa, I'm an art thief."
Actually, with video games, you are.
What do all of these situations have in common? Downloading something for personal enjoyment without paying for the product.
Here's the problem: downloading something, even something also available for free online by a license holder (so long as it's not available for download DIRECTLY by said license holder) is not the same thing as the "free" option. In fact, the free option isn't free at all.
What many don't understand is that for T.V. shows, video games, movies, music, and books, what you are paying for is NOT the physical item. Especially in the case of television programs, where it is "free to view", there is, in fact, a difference on where it is viewed, and a charge associated with it.
Let's start with television and work through all the other options. We'll use the new FMA as our example. There are several options to the American viewer. The first is to watch it, via satellite TV, on your own home television in the US that can pick up Japanese television. Your satellite bill is charging you for the right to view the Japanese station, and the commercials you see are paying for the actual show (in the case of FMA, at least. For many lesser known anime, another option occurs).
When watching online, the same thing occurs. When one sees it on Funi's website, before FMA begins, there is one commercial. In addition to that, there are banners on the top and side of the page that are more advertisements. Funi makes money every time one of those banners is clicked, and may get some money just for them being on the page. Also, like with television, the best, high definition is NOT available, so that, at a later date, one could purchase the DVDs from Funimation with better quality, crisper, fluid picture, and extra features.
When you download a fansub, you are denying the license holder both the immediate and future income it could gross from your viewing of their show.
So, even in cases where it costs you nothing to view, the license holder still has a gain from you watching it on their site or T.V. network rather than elsewhere.
But what about when you have to pay for a media product like a book, game, or DVD, what are you paying for?
What you are paying for is the "right to view". Even in cases where you get no "physical" product, like buying an E-Book such as Art of Otaku, you are paying for the right to information, not the physical disc or cartridge it is contained on.
Likewise, to see the Mona Lisa, you DO have to pay, in the form of an entrance fee to the museum in which it is held. As a former art student, I can tell you: looking at a copy or even a photograph of a famous work of art is nothing like actually standing in front of the real piece. For the opportunity for this information (to lay eyes on the real Mona Lisa and get the visual information for seeing it), you have to pay.
For the opportunity to interact in a virtual environment, you have to pay. To watch a movie, or listen to a piece of music, you are paying for the experience. If the media item was bought by someone else (a library, a friend), and you partake in the experience, you still pay in the form that someone paid for the experience- the library, your friend, etc. If nobody pays/has paid for the experience, you have effectively stolen the right to partake in that experience from the person/people who created it.
Hopefully, this clears up some of the confusion. Please ask any questions/ debate/ leave a comment in the comments.