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Why the War Against Piracy Has Gotten Us Nowhere

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Great efforts have been taken lately in attempts to prevent digital piracy. U.S. internet service providers recently agreed to a “six strikes” agreement to put the policing in ISPs’ hands. Paypal agreed to work with London police to cut off a website that sells pirated content. And yesterday a UK high court ordered BT (the Comcast of the UK) to block access to a site that sells pirated music. As novel as these approaches are, they all contain the same flawed line of thinking. They think they can eliminate piracy by resisting it.

Digital piracy has been a headache for Hollywood, the music industry, and software companies for years now. In the early days of the internet, dial-up speeds and limited digital content made illegal distribution a relatively minor concern. But as media went digital and users’ bandwidth increased, “piracy” exploded.

The music industry has been so damaged that “all-you-can-eat for $10″ streaming services like Spotify are being looked to as a saving grace. Hollywood has been hit too, with current-run movies often hitting torrents the same day they’re in theaters (if not earlier). The same could be said for PC, Mac, and even gaming console software.

Years of Fruitless Struggle

The tactics used by these copyright holders to protect their content haven’t exactly been successful so far. Feeling helpless, several of them have tried to induce widespread fear by picking out illegal downloaders and “making an example” of them.

The most famous example of the “scorched Earth” policy was from the makers of the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker. They sued 5,000 BitTorrent users for having their I.P. addresses associated with downloaded copies of the movie. Many of those users were scared into settling for $1,500 or more. Ultimately, a judge threw out the remaining lawsuits, as nobody can possibly pursue all of those cases in court.

Studios and record labels have also tried forcing Internet Service Providers to block access to torrents, but haven’t found much success. The only real cases where you can clearly say that the plaintiffs have clearly succeeded have been when there is a central company that is responsible (like Limewire and the original Napster).

As torrents involve peer-to-peer connections, there is no central figure that can be punished. ISP’s don’t want to block torrents altogether. First, tons of perfectly legal content is transferred through torrents every day, you can’t just outlaw them. Second, ISP’s like all of the money that they’re getting from their customers, and don’t want to do something rash that could send them to a competitor.

“Six Strikes”

Earlier this month, major U.S. ISP’s (including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Cablevision, and Time Warner Cable) voluntarily signed an agreement with studios to focus more on “education” about copyright infringement to violators than on six-figure lawsuits.

As the deal goes, when a studio contacts an ISP to report an IP address, the customer at that address will receive a series of “letters,” with the intention of pointing out the violation and referring him to more information on the subject. After several of these letters, customers may face data throttling or a “landing page” that won’t go away until they contact the ISP. As always, ISP’s also have the option of terminating service altogether, but not many of them seem interested in going that route.

The approach is suspiciously soft, and therefore may have an ulterior motive. We suspect that the steps are in place to make it easier to bring up lawsuits against those who are caught. If a person has received six pieces of correspondence, it’s harder for him to claim his WiFi was hacked or to say that he knew nothing of it.

On the surface, it seems more sensible than suing a swarm of torrent users for an amount thousands of times greater than the value of the content they downloaded. But it doesn’t change much from the way things are already being handled (warning letters from ISP’s have been used for quite some time), and it’s missing the key component that will ultimately dampen piracy’s impact: innovation.

Innovation Over Prohibition

As it stands, the movie and music studios are behaving like 20th century companies, whining that things aren’t the same as they used to be. They can’t go back to a world where digital piracy isn’t possible – but they sure keep trying.

Sure, you can preach, shame, and threaten people for getting pirated content. But after years of trying to do that, piracy is as rampant as ever. You can wage a moral war against it and declare that it’s utterly despicable, but this “damning” approach simply hasn’t worked.

No matter how many downloaders get sued, people will keep finding ways to get illegal media content. Instead of fighting tooth and nail to achieve the impossible dream of returning to a world where piracy isn’t possible, why not embrace the new world and find enticing new ways to get customers’ money?

Music

Spotify is a great example of this. If I’m “Joe BitTorrent user,” and I’ve been downloading free music for five years, I have no interest in purchasing an album from iTunes or buying a CD from Best Buy. If, however, I’m offered (nearly) any song I would ever want at my fingertips for $10/month – and it’s instantly available on all of my mobile devices – that’s sounding pretty good.

It works because it’s more convenient for Joe BitTorrent User than downloading pirated content is. Plus the asking price is quite reasonable. Joe Bittorrent User is now “Joe Spotify User,” and is contributing $120/yr. to the music industry. It’s not a fortune, but it’s $120/yr. more than what the music industry previously got from him.

TV/Movies

Netflix is another great model. While its selection of TV/movies isn’t on par with Spotify’s music selection, it’s closer than anything else we have right now. If Hollywood was in as desperate a position as the music industry, we likely would see a Netflix with most movie titles available.

What if the studios could agree on a plan that would let a service offer nearly every movie in existence (aside from those in theaters) for about $20/month? What if they added a higher-tiered option that would let subscribers see movies that are still in theaters? If the selection was really that impressive, they would see a lot of people pouring money into Hollywood who were previously turning to Pirate Bay for their viewing material.

Whether this will happen will depend on how desperate Hollywood gets. If they keep struggling for long enough, they’ll have no choice but to adapt. If not, they certainly won’t volunteer for it. The people making these decisions are too short-sighted to acknowledge that the world has changed and that it’s up to them to offer something better. They’re too busy resisting the future and clinging to an old model that has proven not to work.

Games

When you’re talking about software, it gets a little trickier. While it’s hypothetically possible to have an all-you-can play gaming service where gamers can play all the big PC titles for, say, $30/month – that seems less plausible than Spotify or Netflix.

But we have already seen the biggest weapon against pirating PC games – online gaming. It’s hard for publishers to prevent their games from being put up for download, but it’s easy to block the players of those pirated games from playing online.

Many publishers have already figured this out. It’s no coincidence that multiplayer has become such a big part of recent PC gaming. Even if it isn’t an MMO like World of Warcraft, single-player games like Call of Duty are also making their online multiplayer as attractive as possible. Like Spotify and Netflix, it gives people an incentive to buy the content instead of stealing it.

Other Software

Is there a similar solution for vendors of productivity suites such as Microsoft Office or Photoshop? While offering more competitive pricing would be a good start, there is something even better on its way.

The best solution for these types of software isn’t quite here yet, but is rapidly approaching: the cloud. In a few years, having all of your documents and projects automatically synced between all of your home and mobile devices will be what we all expect. Apple is getting a jump on this with iCloud, and others will surely follow.

By simply adding piracy safeguards to any and all cloud services (much like vendors already do with online gaming), you’ve given “Johnny the Microsoft Office Pirate” a big reason to pay for the software. If you want your docs and projects to be synced in the cloud, your software is going to have to be legit.

It may not sound like enough of an incentive for pirates to pay hundreds of dollars for now, but soon the cloud could be a big enough element of our digital lives that it will be.

No Perfect Solution Yet

Of course none of these solutions are going to completely eradicate illegal downloading. But what these innovations can accomplish is getting money from people who otherwise would have taken it without giving any money. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than what they’ve achieved in trying to squash piracy.

One can go on and on about how it “shouldn’t” be that way, and that what pirates are doing is wrong so it must be stopped, etc. But unless we’re going to start invading every internet user’s privacy and start policing everything that happens online, then that kind of stomping-out isn’t likely to work any better than it has up to this point.

Those who rose to powerful positions during a different era are usually slow to adapt to changes in the world. But if the studios and companies who are having their work stolen from them want to do anything about it, they have two choices. They can keep doing what they’ve been doing – and likely succeed in nothing but racking up legal fees. Or they can ask themselves what they can do to make people want to pay for their products in an age where it’s possible for them to take it for free.

Having previously written for Android Central and Android Police, Will is shifting his focus to iOS at GottaBeMobile (without neglecting his old pal Android, of course). He lives in Chicago with his wife, Jess, and is on Twitter at @willshanklin

7 Comments

  1. Mekanism1200

    07/29/2011 at 4:08 pm

    It all comes down to cost. Why give your hard earned money to a record label that takes the profits and pays its ceo’s ridiculous sums of money when you can get it for free. The price of a cd is the same price when they were first getting popular in the early 90′s, they should be much cheaper now with mass production and being made in china. There is more profit for the labels but the same prices for customers. Personally, I would rather spend my money on concert or festival tickets where I know the artists are getting the money and not the greedy record labels.

    I own a large dvd collection and now own blu rays as well. I recently decided to stop buying blu rays because for one they cost to much and two I hate having to re buy content I already own just in a better format. The movie studios should offer to subsidize those customers that want to upgrade to to blu ray, not charge full price to for the same movie they already own.

    The studios and record labels just want your money. Both industries have turned into such big business the art of music and film is getting lost in the greed!

  2. Quentin Dewolf

    07/29/2011 at 5:44 pm

    The current level of piracy tends to sell more media than it costs in lost revenue. there was a study done recently that says that the biggest pirate consumers are also the biggest legit consumers. I remeber in the Atari days when they went so far with copy protection as to cut holes in game disks that the software looked for but in the end the cost was too high for the gain and all copy protection disapeared as the industry discovered that most of the pirates were also buying the legal games.
    This is not to defend people who try and make a profit off of pirating and they should be prosecuted. Also the crying middle men in the media world have to realize that media is being democratized and the consumer wants timely, easy and direct access with a sense of compensation to the artists instead of executives.

  3. artfiend

    07/29/2011 at 7:20 pm

    It’s true that resisting isn’t a panacea. But creators at the artist level have been digitally raped for a decade or more and you’ve completely ignored the satisfaction of destroying a pirate’s life.

    Artists are catching on and the game is slowly evolving. If you follow the motivations clearly, it’s now the artist groups at ground level that have the legislators ear, not just the industries. The wrath is coming and revenge is sweet.

  4. jnt12

    08/01/2011 at 6:37 pm

    This is the problem I have with Spotify: Yes, it probably will lead to less pirating, because some of the people who used to download music illegally will now use Spotify as an alternative. But what about all of the people who used to purchase all of their music on Itunes (and there are a lot of people who still do this), who will realize that they no longer have to pay the $9.99 for every album that they want and will now use Spotify as a cheap alternative? It’s hard to say whether the profit earned from the people going from free music to Spotify will outweigh the loss that results from people going from actually purchasing full albums to Spotify, but considering the small amount of revenue that artists gain from Spotify and other streaming websites like Rhapsody and Last.FM, Spotify could easily cause more harm than help for artists. The major labels will benefit because they all have shares in the company, but the artists who are actually making the music will likely never see any of that money.  

  5. Roberto

    08/02/2011 at 12:12 am

    If you want to slow down pirating, get rid of DRM. If I buy something I want to do with it what I want across multiple platform and devices. It does me no good to give me a copy of a movie in a Blu ray package if I can only watch it on one device in one place, with one OS. It’s stupid.

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