Some Thoughts About Piracy and a Flailing Entertainment Industry…

As one might expect, I spent a lot of time today thinking about SOPA and the entertainment industry and really trying to see both sides of what seems clear as day to me a one-sided knee-jerk reaction because it’s important to me that this is more than just a culture who’s used to getting things for free on the Internet strong-arming big business into getting their way purely in the name of “a free and open Internet…”

And so to some extent as a content creator myself, from an ethical standpoint I can really sympathize with these studios on the simple point that piracy isn’t fair. They’re in the business both to entertain people and to make money, and it’s not fair that after putting all sorts of time and effort and money into a given project, later on they come to find that people are trading around that content with little or no respect for the the people who created it. People deserve to get paid for their work, so if you go out and download a pirated copy of my latest book of humor columns about gym socks without actually paying me for them, in essence it kinda feels like you’ve just stolen the $10 out of my pocket that a good-paying customer would’ve rightfully given me for it.

So yes, I totally 100% agree that it’s not fair from a purely ethical standpoint that pirates swap around IP on the Internet with little regard for those responsible for putting it out in the first place. But here’s the problem when you consider the other side of that coin from a realistic, trying-to-run-a-business perspective – to honestly presume that anyone and everyone who pirated that material would’ve been willing to actually pay me for it if they hadn’t otherwise pirated it is at the very least a pretty naive understanding of the working minds of those who pirate things online, and to present such a hypothesis as justification for legislation like PIPA and SOPA is frankly just reckless and irresponsible in the grand scheme that would (and wouldn’t) be affected by these bills in a lame attempt to recover this seemingly lost stream of revenue…

The idea that # of downloads directly translates to sales lost is simply laughable when you really sit down and start to categorize the types of people who regularly pirate copyrighted media:

  • people who would’ve paid you, if only you gave them a viable means to do so (i.e. content not yet offered in my region or on my platform of preference)
  • people who have paid you and thus feel entitled that they shouldn’t have to pay twice for the same content (i.e. downloading an electronic copy of a DVD I own to watch on my iPod or downloading a TV program that my DVR failed to record off of my really expensive cable package)
  • people who are just plain cheap and refuse to pay for anything electronic because stealing on the Internet is really easy (not much of an excuse, but important to consider in a moment…)
  • and finally, people who simply collect pirated material and honestly will never even watch your movie once they have it

I want to focus on those last two because really in essence, the first two are purely signs that you’re not marketing as effectively as you could because those are both customers who actually like you and want to pay you, but in return simply expect the same fairness that you’re expecting back from them. They don’t think it’s necessarily fair that in this global marketplace where transactions can take place across the world in milliseconds, they should have to wait another 6 months for Firefly to hit Australia when it gets released elsewhere earlier, no more than they should have to pay another $2.99 to download a show off of iTunes when they already pay $59.95/month for a cable subscription that should’ve been sufficient.

But those other two are really the crux of Hollywood’s logic because these folks are the reasons why the studios’ so called “estimates” of horrendous profits lost are absolutely without merit – as much as it may not be fair for me to download a movie from you without paying, it’s equally not fair for you to claim that you missed out on my $12 to go see that same movie in the theater simply because I downloaded it because if I’m of the majority of Internet pirates, I honestly don’t really even care what your movie’s about. Maybe I downloaded it for the thrill, or because it was anticipated to make a lot of money, or even simply because it was on the warez site that I get all of my pirated stuff from and I figured why not?!

I can honestly vouch for that kind of attitude because frankly, a long time ago I used to do it myself. I hung out in IRC channels dedicated to specific TV shows and ran file servers with all of the latest episodes, and later I helped to seed bittorrent trackers for those same shows, and at some point I hadn’t even watched the actual show itself in months! But I did it anyways just to be a part of the circle and it was no big deal for that server to run in the background and utilize my upstream that most of the time otherwise would’ve sat empty. Before I finally bowed out of “the scene,” I had copies of all sorts of TV shows and movies and random, big name software applications that honestly I’d never really have any real reason to actually use myself … but it was a neat collection, and I made it all available online so that other people could feed their collections as well.

And again, I’m not saying that it’s right, but now we really need to talk about how to look at the business decision stemmed from online piracy because at the end of the day, every business owner needs to decide what things are the most important for his company to pursue as they strive to exist into the future, and after considering this basic view of who really makes up these folks pirating your content, I can’t imagine why in the world they’d rather focus on this as opposed to instead trying to both A) truly learn how to make the Internet work for them to help promote their works, and B) actively and vigorously pursuing the real pirates that are having a verifiable impact on your bottom line – the ones who operate DVD pirating mills and sell bootlegged copies on the street corner for pennies on the dollar.

First, the Internet – it’s an amazing technological wonder and quite possibly the greatest innovation in communications that the world has seen thus far, so instead of focusing your efforts on flailing takedown notices and lawsuits for anyone big or small who’s ever run a file sharing app on their computer, why not instead make a better attempt to fill the gap that these people are filling with piracy by making your own content more readily available yourselves for your adoring fans to enjoy.

  • People like singing to your songs on YouTube? Don’t demand that the clips be taken down – instead, collaborate with Google to offer a system where adoring fans can insert their favorite lyrics into any of their own videos.
  • Irritated that low quality clips of your cartoon comedy are popping up all over? Become the source for favorite Family Guy moments by creating a video archive of Stewie’s best quotes yourself for fans to Like and share with their friends.
  • Tired of people in Europe getting to see your US content before its European release date by stealing it? Stop being silly and just let the entire world enjoy your stuff at the same time instead of trying to regulate demand like things worked before we had a worldwide web connecting us all and making global communications as easy as clicking on a random link!

Take a cue from independent media and learn to let technology work for you because that’s what they’re doing and instead of bickering over file sharing sites and crying wolf about millions potentially lost, they’re focusing best efforts on cultivating that group of fans who are actively paying them to create content and building a goodwill that will last them well beyond just the next immediate release to hit screens. Besides, if there’s one thing that the Internet has proven to us over the years, it’s that they will always find a way around something, hence encryption schemes being cracked literally the same day that they’re released and new software and movies made available before they even make it to shelves or the theater … the point is, if Internet piracy truly is inevitable, then why waste any time trying to stop it when instead you could be spending your time making better content that will be appealing to as many of the folks who will pay for it as you possibly can…

And granted, the one caveat I will keep out there is in the instance of somebody in China mass printing copies of my book to sell on the black market or something, I do see more of a drive to police something where an actual profit is being made by someone else taking advantage of my work … but even then, maybe that’s just a sign that my books are too expensively priced for consumption in China??? Again, it’s all a matter of what I can reasonably deal with myself, and what’s just recklessly throwing money at a problem that I want to go away with little concern to any impact that might happen on the rest of the ecosystem (i.e. the Internet) as a result.

Then again, maybe Hollywood already has enough money and instead they’ve chosen to direct all of those profits towards ensuring that only those who’ve legitimately purchased the rights to view their content gets to enjoy it. 

Me – I’ve still got plenty of toys that I’d like to buy, so for my business it just makes a lot more sense to focus on the things that I can realistically control instead of doing all sorts of truly unethical things like buying senators and expecting an entire technological wonder like this online global community of ours to grind to a halt simply to humor them into thinking this over-exaggerated cultural rift can actually be stopped.

Believe it or not, there’s not really a mysterious $200 billion pot of gold at the end of this piracy conundrum just waiting to be found. One day maybe Hollywood, the MPAA, and the RIAA will figure this out, and all we can do in the meantime is continue to insist loudly that they aren’t allowed to ruin the Internet until they get there…

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