Piracy Is The Symptom, Not The Problem

Icon for Germany's Piratenpartei*

There have been several stories in the news lately that have been hammering away at the concept of internet piracy. The primary concern in the US being the two pieces of legislation currently winding their way through the House and the Senate, the former being known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the second the PROTECT IP Act (and yes, all the letters in “protect” are acronymic).  SOPA being the craziest of the two, in that it would lead to blocking websites via a US Firewall, not unlike China. As I mentioned in my post on this blog a few days ago, it’s easy to contact your Representative and Senators and tell them that you don’t want this to go through.

But all of this legal wrangling doesn’t get to the root of why there is a glut of internet piracy.  It follows the same train of logic that has been trotted out time and again, that people are stealing these things because they don’t want to pay for them. So Congress must combat these thieves so that publishers, record companies and film studios can protect their supply chain.

So, why do people pirate content online?  It isn’t just because they can.  And it isn’t just because free and they don’t want to pay for it.  People pirate electronic media because they love the content, and they want to get it in a digital format as fast as possible.

In a recent article for the Guardian, Cory Doctorow wrote about why people turn to internet piracy, specifically here for films.  In a study conducted by the UK Open Rights Group they found that:

though close to 100% of their sample were available as DVDs, more than half of the top 50 UK films of all time were not available as downloads. The numbers are only slightly better for Bafta winners: just 58% of Bafta best film winners since 1960 can be bought or rented as digital downloads (the bulk of these are through iTunes – take away the iTunes marketplace, which isn’t available unless you use Mac or Windows, and only 27% of the Bafta winners can be had legally).

That’s a pretty bleak statistic.  But similar or even bleaker statistics could be said of any other type of digital content online.

Ultimately, the problem is supply restrictions, which are a result of the rights holder bottlenecking the product in an effort to attempt to drive up sales. The thing is, if the items that the users actually wanted to have were available via digital download the people who are currently pirating these files are 10 times more likely to purchase them.  In 2008, for the first time ever, mp3 sales outpaced CD sales.  Since 2006 US digital music revenues has increased nearly a billion dollars a year.  Worldwide it’s been increasing 2-3 billion dollars a year.  BILLION.  Also, when provided with a service that allows users to stream content over the internet, piracy tends to decline.  In Sweden piracy dropped 25% thanks to services like Spotify which allows users to access a vast library of music files and listen to music from friends for free.  The larger the collection being accessed, the less necessary it becomes to go seeking alternate means of acquiring the object of one’s desire.

When presented with a venue where people can access the content they want they will flock there.  They will even pay a fee, within reason to access that content.  Netflix is a prime example of how it can work, and how it can fail.  Netflix provides digital streaming access to movies for a nominal, per month fee (about $8.00).  They were able to get a great big bunch of content through a partnership with the Starz cable network.  However, in September Starz and Netflix announced that they were going to part ways, and that means that the Netflix catalog is going to drastically drop in scope.  Now, the Atlantic ran an article back in July, before the Starz deal breaker was announced.  In it they claimed that content was not in fact king, and that it was the service that people wanted from a highly trusted brand.  Well, when you squander your brand capital on splitting your services (then not doing so) and then you lose a bunch of content… Well, that’s going to lead users down the road to search for other methods to meet their demands.  When a distribution channel like that dries up, it leaves people in the lurch.

The same thing that’s happening to Netflix with movies is happening to libraries with eBooks.

Recently library land has been all up in arms about eBooks, and how publishers are looking to crack down even further on what libraries are allowed to have in eBooks, and continually scaling back what they’re willing to give.  The first big fiasco was Harper-Collins, who decided to put in a a DRM bomb that would make their ebooks automatically delete from the library’s collection after 26 uses.  Most recently Penguin has decided to pull its content out of Overdrive, a library ebook lending service, because of a dispute that they’re having with Amazon.  This decision was reversed yesterday, thank goodness, but this illustrates the kind of bottlenecking that I’m talking about.  These are two separate parties, whose dispute led to having the content, which is legitimately purchased by libraries, to be removed without warning.  Libraries no longer actually own the materials that we purchase, it’s just access, subject to termination at will.  And that’s an environment that content users, who want to get materials, and try new things out, are not going to be willing to tolerate for very long.  eBooks are in an infancy period, and with usage growing, problems like this can and will probably lead to pirating of digital books.

Pirated comic books have been a major problem for a while, but again they’re a problem of timeliness in the distribution chain.  Specifically there have arisen a number of fan translation sites, where they scan Japanese manga and translate the text into English before the publisher releases an English edition.  This process with the publisher takes a long time, because they want to do it well.  The fans however are willing to take right now over done right.  A friend of mine who just attended an anime convention was complaining about folks who had just watched something that they had torrented online.  Something not yet available in English, and not available in Japanese with official subtitles.  These kids saw the film with a fan subtitle, just because everyone they know had been talking about online and anticipating the release.

In today’s culture, media of every type can be delivered instantly.  When a publisher tells a consumer that they have to wait, or they have to buy the DVD, or the need to go through this complicated series of applications to download the legitimate version of a thing it just stonewalls the consumer.  Piracy is a symptom of a failure of industry to meet consumer demands for online access to content.  So, rather than legislating to crack down on piracy, which is directly attacking the consumer who desperately wants a product, we need to instead invest in changing the culture of the suppliers.

And now for some unsolicited advice to publishers.  Here are some handy guideposts to how a company could change their practices for online content distribution, that would be positive for users, positive for business, and create a better culture on the internet.

  • Stop attacking your consumers

Nothing turns people off from buying your products like a million dollar lawsuit.  Stop suing people for ridiculous sums of money because you already have billions of dollars.  Clearly, you can afford an army of lawyers and these people often cannot.  Its greedy and creates a poor image of industry.  Stop pursuing further methods of legal action to crack down on piracy, because you are the one who isn’t adapting.

  • Provide services where users can demo an item, sample it, and then choose to purchase it or not.

This is what happens with Spotify.  You can listen to an unlimited amount of music, and chances are, you’ll buy some of it if you like it.  And then you’ll listen to it again, and again. Sample chapters of an ebook may lead to reading the whole book or purchasing a copy of the physical book.  It’s called browsing.  People do it every day.

  • Create timely distribution of content online, simultaneous with physical releases.

One of the major reasons why things get pirated is that the legitimate distribution services have a delay from the time of broadcast or release dates.  A user can watch something on television, but it takes a day for it to hit Hulu.  There’s no need for that.  It shouldn’t matter if you’re watching it on TV or online, it’s a broadcast.  If a DVD drops, there should be streaming and downloadable copies on the same day.  No question about it.

  • Global releases should be simultaneous.

Another reason why things get pirated is that they may be released in one country first, and then users in another country have to wait from a day, a week, or up to months before it could ever see the light of day somewhere else.  The internet as a distribution channel means that everyone is waiting for that comic to hit the shelf, or that television show to air.  Consumers, and rabid fans especially, are savvy to time zones.  People will wait up to 4:00 a.m to watch a television show in a foreign country.  World Cup anyone?

  • Once it’s out, it’s out.  Make your complete backlist fully available.

As it was in the British Film example, people go looking for what they can’t find through normal distribution channels.  Many of those things are older titles and things that have gone “out of print.”  There is no longer such a thing as “out of print.”  Once something has been published, it is made a part of a permanent body of human work.  You can’t stifle the movement of that item, nor should you.  Take advantage of people’s desire for hard to find items and make your entire body of work available digitally.  If there is a legitimate means to acquire it, people will do so.

  • Simplify the access method

Make the item readable or viewable through software that comports to generally accepted industry standards.  You don’t need to slap a ton of DRM on something, or use some unique proprietary software when you’re making it as widely available and purchasable as possible.  Let your audience buy your product through as many different venues as possible, and on any device they want.  Also, if at all possible to make that content available in multiple devices at once all the better.

  • Set reasonable price points

Users are willing to pay, but not extortionate prices.  Reasonable cost for the product in a timely fashion will lead to sales.  Overly high prices will push users away.  You’re in business, you should know that already.

  • Encourage distribution partners

Don’t quash partnerships that close off distribution channels.  When you pull service from a place it makes the consumers angry.  Instead find multiple venues to promote and sell your product and people will buy it where they go normally.

  • Let your items go

With movies, music and books end this practice of licensing content for use.  It’s a product, people buy it, or they don’t.  It’s not an ongoing service. Once a consumer has purchased an item, the producer/publisher needs to get out of the picture.  Your continual involvement in the product is more than an annoyance, and has crossed over into the realm of mind games.  Will it still be around? Will I know if its deleted?  Do I have to buy it again and again?  Just stop that.  It’s like psychological torture.  Let a person buy a book, and move on with life.  My purchase doesn’t need to be the focus of your life to follow what happens with these items.  It’s intrusive and disingenuous.  A sale of goods is a finite transaction.  Let it be.

  • Allow and promote sharing

People are social creatures, and we like to share things.  Not usually with the whole world at once, but often times with friends that we know in our daily lives.  When you make sharing easier, it spreads word of mouth about your products.  And that’s the strongest link to creating brand awareness, having a trusted friend recommend something.  I like sharing books with friends and I should be able to do that electronically as well as with a printed book.  It’s no different, and shouldn’t be treated as different.


* In Europe a major response to political involvement in digital content has arisen in the form of the Pirate Parties.  Their entire platform revolves around restructuring copyright and patent law.

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One comment on “Piracy Is The Symptom, Not The Problem

  1. libana66 says:

    You are right!
    I agree with you!
    Ho!

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