I will admit, when I was younger I used to pirate music. Even just a few years back I used to pirate unauthorized video streams online for sporting events I wanted to watch. If you don’t mind some questionable audio and video quality and if you don’t mind hunting around on some sketchy websites for links, then pirating media isn’t a huge challenge. However, I eventually decided that there were enough sufficiently easy to use legal alternatives for tv and music to stop pirating. I generally stream everything through either Spotify or Pandora for music and my Smart TV easily connects with streaming services really for what feels like a fair price.
The lesson from my example is that good lawful alternatives are an effective way to fight against illegal music and tv streaming and downloading. This is an idea that Steven Pinker briefly explores in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature when he writes, “it’s easier to deter people from crime if the lawful alternative is more appealing.”
Pinker was not writing about illegal media downloads, rather violent crime in Medieval Europe, but the idea still holds. In my example, tv contracts with cable or satellite that cost well over $100/month for channels I wasn’t going to watch wasn’t wasn’t a good legal alternative for me to watch the sports and occasional cooking shows that I wanted to see. The process for getting services started was cumbersome and the contracts locked me for long terms of service with guaranteed rate increases. Illegal streaming was more appealing even if it had some risk and poor overall quality. In terms of music, my options used to be paying $1 for a song or $10 for an album for a legal download versus illegally downloading songs. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford the music (or the tv contract for that matter) but rather that it wasn’t optimal for how I wanted to consume media. Music streaming services now offer a better service for a reasonable price, and I no longer download music illegally. Good legal alternatives changed the incentive structure and ultimately changed my behavior.
But this doesn’t mean that deterrence is unnecessary. Good deterrence can be paired with good lawful alternatives to further shape people’s behaviors in desired directions. A close example to my media piracy and subsequent changes to legal alternatives comes from the world of gaming. Video games can be illegally uploaded online and played on computers or home consoles without an individual purchasing the game. Video game companies have gotten creative with how they combat piracy. Some developers build their games in a way that allows the game to recognize if it has been stolen or is being played on a computer rather than the console it was intended for. In some instances, developers will allow players to reach a set point in the game before preventing further play. This gives the illegal players a chance to experience the game and hopefully want to purchase it to play it all the way through. Rather than making extreme efforts to combat the piracy, these developers accept that some piracy will happen, but rely on providing a good enough product and legal alternative model to obtaining the game to reduce the total amount and overall impact of piracy. They pair reasonable forms of deterrence with good legal alternatives.
This idea is interesting because when we think about crime in the United States at least, our primary response tends to be punishment and deterrence. We don’t often seem to think much about legal alternatives and barriers to legal alternatives. We don’t think reasonably about the trade-offs for escalating deterrence versus accepting some negative behavior and making the most of it like video game companies. Costs, incentive structures, and barriers (like red tape) can make illegal activity more appealing, but we don’t always recognize that. This was true in my illegal music and tv streaming and downloading and Pinker argues it has been true at various points of human history with respect to violence. One explanation that Pinker offers for why humans have become less violent is because we have developed better legal alternatives to obtaining things that humans want and desire. Violence is no longer a great way to ensure you have resources and status. Less violent ways of obtaining such things are now good alternatives through institutional and societal design. This is an important lesson to learn and think about when we are trying to shape people’s behaviors and deter criminal activity. Tough on crime sounds great, but deterrence needs to be paired with good legal alternatives.