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Drink up me hearties, yo ho: the case for piracy

The fact that I’m still referencing Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat three years after it was required reading in my ENGL 398 class means, unfortunately, that I was wrong: ENGL 398 wasn’t completely useless.

But on to more important and less embarrassing matters. The World is Flat looks at the way the world changed with the invention of the Internet and other modern technologies and eventually, reaches the conclusion that geography is no longer an obstacle. Friedman looks at the way it’s affected various sectors of our economy and society, pointing out that people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos (Facebook and Amazon.com founders, respectively) have profited mightily as the world has flattened, while blue-collar workers have suffered. And as Friedman points out, the flattening of the world is something that won’t be stopped.

The effects of flattening on the entertainment industry (books, movies, TV, and music) are particularly interesting. On one hand, for example, James Cameron’s Avatar has grossed more than any other movie in the history of film (as of right now, Wikipedia claims about $2.7 billion). On the other hand, it has the undesirable record of fastest-pirated movie ever.

So it’s clear that because of piracy, while sales are increasing, consumption is not necessarily increasing proportionally. That is, more people are watching movies, watching TV and listening to music than ever before, but one person watching doesn’t mean a sale took place. It’s also clear that while the RIAA and Hollywood really really want to stop piracy in its tracks, they’re going about it in exactly the wrong way.

The approach is wrong because the entertainment industry views all pirates the same: dirty, rotten criminals who want to enjoy great content without paying a dime. But there are more reasons someone might grab a movie, song or TV show.

  • The thief. Before I go too far into this, I might as well establish this guy. The thief is the guy who, upon hearing what Napster was, never bought another CD; upon hearing what Kazaa was, never bought another movie, show, program or game; and upon learning what an ebook is…didn’t really care, because this isn’t exactly your well-read type. This guy isn’t an ideologue; he’s just a guy looking to score something with which to entertain himself.

    To the entertainment industry, this guy is the same as the filthy pirates that are leeching the same torrents; he’s the same guy as the guys sharing those torrents. And when you consider it this way, it’s not hard to see why the entertainment industry has such tunnel vision on arresting every single pirate, fining them the maximum amount, and throwing them into Shawshank after publicly castrating them. But they’re missing the bigger picture – like a farmer concentrating all his energy on one rotten apple tree while the rest of the orchard is blooming around him.

  • The ideologue. The ideologue is the same guy as the thief, except he claims to be well-read and well-versed and is of the philosophy that in today’s world, everything is free. He fails to see why a DVD that costs $0.10 to burn that contains the rumored 65 million lines of code in Windows 7 is worth more than that $0.10. He feels that Green Day is best seen in person anyway, and that’s where the real value lies, so a copy of the newest CD isn’t worth anything, really. He might have seen Transformers 2 in theaters, and that was overpriced, and it wasn’t even that good anyway, so downloading a free copy is perfectly justified. In fact, not only are these things legally okay, they’re encouraged: it’s patriotic! It’s sticking it to the Man!

    I don’t need to tell you that this is wrong. Software, games, movies, CDs, and books take a lot of time to write, produce, film, record, and distribute. Anyone who’s ever worked on a project like this that takes a significant amount of time knows that the physical media is worth an infinitesimal amount relative to the creations they house.

    For example, take the Humble Bundle, a package of independent games for which the buyer could choose their price. The wildly successful bundle was purchased by 138,811 happy users for the average price of $9.17, with an average of $2.83 per transaction going to a noble charity. The bundle made over $1.2 million, despite the games having no DRM and being rampantly pirated, in just over a week. Another interesting note here was that the average payment by operating system varied significantly, and tellingly: while Windows and Mac users averaged $8.05 and $10.18 apiece, Linux users averaged a whopping $14.52 apiece. This is telling because Linux users tend to be more aware of the development process and know at least that software development takes time and effort. (And since Linux is open source and many of its software projects run off of donations and foundations, Linux users may have been more trained to donate for software they thought was good while getting to use it for free to begin with.)

    If you’re the entertainment industry, these guys really can’t be reasoned with, since they have their ideals and that’s that. But clearly, bundles like the Humble Bundle, if marketed properly, are effective at generating interest and goodwill. (And a lot of independent musicians already do this.)

  • The outcast. This is the guy that might pay for a show, song or movie that he wants, but it’s not available to him either because of where he lives, its timing, or the format he wants. As an iTunes user myself, for example, there aren’t many songs that I’d want to download that aren’t on the store, but there are some infamous artists (mostly guys from the 60s and 70s who still think the government is out to get them and that Hendrix was killed because he ate a CIA meatball filled with toxin). The Beatles, Bob Seger, and AC/DC are three notables that are absent.

    So what’s someone to do? You can always buy the CD, but you might only want that one song and the only CD available today is a 10-disc ultra-super-fantastic “EVERY SONG HE’S EVER SUNG SINCE BIRTH” boxed set. So maybe you don’t feel great about it, but you pirate the song. “It’s his own fault,” you say to yourself as the bytes hurtle through the Internet, “he should have put his music on iTunes.” This same philosophy goes for modern artists who still aren’t of the opinion that they should have to put out a quality CD to get someone to buy the full CD, and release their music to iTunes as “Album Only”, meaning that if you want that new remix of Britney Spears covering “Rock and Roll All Nite”, you better pony up for the rest of the album too.

    All of this goes for movies and TV shows too. How I Met Your Mother is one of my favorite shows to watch on TV, and I eagerly acquired the first two seasons on DVD. As anyone who knows me knows, I’m a big fan of music in movies and shows and feel it plays a vital role, enough to take notice when music is really good or really bad or just mediocre. So you can imagine my dismay when I started watching the How I Met Your Mother DVDs and found out that the music from the episodes isn’t the same as the music that aired. My guess is that CBS didn’t want to pay the royalties for the songs they used in the original show. Pretty cheap, considering the music they used wasn’t exactly mainstream. You could argue, in this case, that I own the DVDs; why is downloading the shows the way they originally aired a problem?

    We’re at the point now where the entertainment industry is completely misunderstanding the problem. When someone wants to pay you money, and you don’t have the product available for them to buy, it’s your problem, not theirs. So how should the industry respond? Make quality content that people want to buy. A great example of this is the Seinfeld DVDs, which not only have all the episodes from all nine seasons of the best show of all time, but they have hours and hours of special features that are interesting, funny and illuminating. The special features on those DVDs intrigued me enough that I’d buy those DVDs; the fact that I got the episodes too was just a bonus. And if you can’t do big time special features, go for the little things: a bonus digital copy to put on your iPhone or iPad, both the Blu-ray and the DVD version, etc. Oh, and the music that actually aired. And for buying music: get over it, the buy a whole CD age is over. Most people will either buy the song they want or not one at all. If you want to curb piracy, make it easier for customers to get what they want.

  • The owner. If you buy a movie on DVD, there are programs that exist that let you rip that movie to your hard drive so you can move it to your various devices. How is that different than downloading it?

    Both downloading the film and ripping the film are, strictly speaking, illegal. But how is this different than recording a movie on TV on your DVR or your hard drive using a TV tuner card? If you ask me, if you buy the movie, you own it, and as long as you’re not distributing copies to anyone who wants it; that is (or should be) fair use.

    That said, I’ll point out that buying a VHS of Star Wars and then downloading the hi-def Blu-ray rips when they come out is not ethical and should never be legal. This will be a different version completely, an upgrade from what you already have. It’d be like owning a first-generation iPod and expecting a free upgrade to an iPod Touch.

    One way the entertainment industry could combat this form of piracy is actually already being attempted by Warner Bros.: an exchange program to exchange old DVDs for new Blu-rays. For $5 + a DVD of the original movie + postage, you get a Blu-ray of that same movie. It’s a good deal, if you’re looking to upgrade your collection. (Even if you’re not, you can simply buy the used DVD on the cheap and then upgrade to Blu-ray and still net savings.) You could do this for digital copies too – offer a deal where you can buy a digital copy of a movie in the format of your choice for $1.99 or so, provided you can supply a UPC code for the DVD or something.

The bottom line is this: the entertainment industry treats pirates like enemies, but most of them are friends. Stories like the Ubisoft DRM fiasco of earlier this spring juxtaposed with the fact that most piracy numbers are grossly overestimated and that pirates are the industry’s best customers make it clear that the entertainment industry is overreacting to piracy and treating some of its best customers like criminals.

Look, you won’t stop piracy. But most people understand that creating the media they enjoy costs money and they’re willing to pay for it. Kind of like Democrats targeting Independents instead of hardcore Republicans, instead of focusing on the thieves, the entertainment industry should be focusing on winning over the people who just aren’t satisfied with the product they’re offered.

Originally posted on Cleveland, Curveballs and Common Sense on May 23, 2010 at 7:25 PM. Post text content © 2010 Jimmy Sawczuk. All rights reserved.