You Will Never Kill Piracy, and Piracy Will Never Kill You
Now that the SOPA and PIPA fights have died down, and Hollywood prepares their next salvo against internet freedom with ACTA and PCIP, it’s worth pausing to consider how the war on piracy could actually be won.
It can’t, is the short answer, and one these companies do not want to hear as they put their fingers in their ears and start yelling. As technology continues to evolve, the battle between pirates and copyright holders is going to escalate, and pirates are always, always going to be one step ahead. To be clear, this is in no way meant to be a “pro-piracy” piece, it is merely meant to show the inescapable realities of piracy that media companies refuse to acknowledge.
What’s clear is that legislation is not the answer. Piracy is already illegal in the US, and most places around the world, yet it persists underground, but more often in plain sight. Short of passing a law that allows the actual blacklisting of websites like China and Iran, there is no legislative solution. That’s what SOPA and PIPA were attempting to do, but it so obviously trampled on the First Amendment, it was laughed out of existence as the entire internet protested it. The only other thing you could get the internet to agree on was if they tried to institute a ban on cat pictures.
So, what to do? Go the other direction. Realize piracy is a service problem. Right now, from the browser window in which I’m writing this article, it is possible to download and start watching a movie for free in a few swift clicks.
(This is all purely theoretical of course)
1. Move mouse to click on Pirate Bay bookmark
2. Type in “The Hangover 2″ (awful movie, but a new release for the sake of the example)
3. Click on result with highest seeds
4. Click download torrent
5. Auto open uTorrent
6. Wait ten minutes to download
7. Play movie, own it forever
It’s not moral, it’s not right, but it’s there and it’s easy and there’s no one to stop you from doing it, and never will be. If after ten years and millions of dollars in legal fees they finally manage to kill the Pirate Bay, there are hundreds of other torrent sites that exist, and more will spring up. If they ban torrents altogether, the internet will invent something new.
Piracy is not raiding and plundering Best Buys and FYEs, smashing the windows and running out with the loot. It’s like being placed in a store full of every DVD in existence. There are no employees, no security guards, and when you take a copy of movie, another one materializes in its place, so you’re not actually taking anything. If you were in such a store, you’d only have your base moral convictions to keep you from cloning every movie in sight. And anyone who knows how to get to this store isn’t going to let their conscience stop them, especially when there is no tangible “loss” to even feel bad about.
It’s not a physical product that’s being taken. There’s nothing going missing, which is generally the hallmark of any good theft. The movie and music industries’ claim that each download is a lost sale is absurd. I might take every movie in that fictional store if I was able to, but would I have spent $3 million to legally buy every single DVD? No, I’d probably have picked my two favorite movies and gone home. So yes, there are losses, but they are miniscule compared to what the companies actually claim they’re losing.
The seven step, ten minute download process (which will be about ten seconds when US internet speeds catch up with the rest of the world) is the real enemy the studios should be trying to tackle. Right now, the industry is still stuck in the past, and is crawling oh-so-slowly into the future. They still believe people are going to want to buy DVDs or Blu-rays in five years, and that a movie ticket is well worth $15. Netflix is the closest thing they have to an advocate, but the studios are trying to drive them out of business as they see them as a threat, not a solution. It’s mind boggling.
The primary problem movie studios have to realize is that everything they charge for is massively overpriced. The fact that movie ticket prices keep going up is astonishing. How can they possibly think charging $10-15 per ticket for a new feature is going to increase the amount of people coming to theaters rather than renting the movie later or downloading it online for free? Rather than lower prices, they double down, saying that gimmicks like 3D and IMAX are worth adding another $5 to your ticket.
They have failed to realize that people want things to be easy. Physically going to the movies is hard enough without paying way too much for the privilege. Going to a store and buying a DVD instead of renting or downloading is generally an impractical thing to do unless you A) really love a particular movie or B) are an avid film buff or collector.
I saw an image on reddit the other day that had a concept for an online movie distribution tool that would be the movie industry’s greatest ally if they were to even consider it. Here it is:
More or less, it’s Steam (the online PC game distribution client) for movies. It allows you to rent or download your favorite films with ease, build a library and watch cross devices and share with your friends. The service would effectively allow you to beat the seven step piracy process easily.
1. Open “Movie Steam”
2. Search for The Hangover 2
3. Click button to rent for $2 for 24 hours
4. Play movie.
They win by three steps! And as an added bonus, you no longer have to feel guilty for doing something illegal.
To some degree, this is what Netflix streaming is, though you don’t have the ability to actually own the movies you want, and there’s a very limited selection. In terms of buying new films, studios are so far behind the times it’s laughable. Most often they want you to buy the $30 Blu-ray so you can get the “Ultraviolet” copy as well that plays on a few digital devices. Please, how about I’ll give you $10 for the new Harry Potter, and I’ll watch it whenever and wherever I want? This is a negotiation where at any time, your customer could just go download the damn movie for free, and they’re doing you a favor by even considering picking it up legally. And you have the nerve to think it’s on YOUR terms? That’s not how negotiation works. It may not be right, but it’s reality, and they have to face it.
Yet movie companies threaten to put Netflix out of business by charging them huge amounts of money to have access to their content. Netflix is in the forefront of the war on piracy, and the studios don’t even seem to understand it. It’s incredible.
“Movie Steam” would have its share of practical problems. It would be hard to get companies to agree to all use one service, and I sure as hell wouldn’t want “Sony Steam,” “Universal Steam,” and “Paramount Steam” all cluttering up my computer. It would also be hard for companies to agree to set prices this low, when they’re used to charging $15-30 for physical products. It would be almost impossible for them to not agree to some sort of ridiculous DRM, and god forbid if you ever wanted to share a movie with a friend.
It would also effectively kill off services like Netflix and Redbox (and of course finally put Blockbuster out of its misery) as well as hurt every retail store that sells DVDs. You could argue however, that DVDs will be gone completely within the decade, and retailers are going to have to brace themselves for that anyway. There’s always the crowd that circles around me when I bring this up to say “but people will always want physical media,” but there is just no possible way this is the case in 20, 10 or even maybe even five more years.
But with a distribution service like this, at least they’d be trying. At least they’d be going in the right direction. Trying to pass laws that stifle the freedom of the internet and piss off the entire population of a country is a terrible, terrible route to go. The millions of dollars they spent lobbying trying to get bills like SOPA and PIPA passed could have gone into R&D for new distribution arms like the one above.
And here’s something no one has stopped to consider: Maybe making movies is too damn expensive. Or rather, far more expensive than it needs to be.
After SOPA and PIPA, Hollywood now looks like a dinosaur, and as out of touch as someone trying to kill the radio or home video cassettes. Venture capital firms are actually now actively looking to fund companies with the aim of dismantling the industry, as the current model of movie making seems outdated. The internet is producing a talented crop of filmmakers working on shoestring budgets, hungry to get themselves noticed.
Perhaps A-list actors do not need multi-multi-million dollar salaries when there are thousands of hardworking amateurs trying to get noticed. Perhaps not every graphic novel and board game needs $100M or $200M thrown at it in order to become a feature film when there are hundreds of creative, original screenplays that get tossed in the trash. Perhaps you don’t need to spend an additional $100M marketing a movie when everyone is fast-forwarding through commercials and has AdBlock on their browsers.
The industry is crawling toward these sorts of realizations, and they’re suffering for it. Yes, it’s true that nothing will ever kill piracy. But it’s equally true that nothing will ever kill the movie, music or video game industries either. Projects with bloated budgets and massively overpaid talent might start to fade away, but that can only be a good thing creatively for all the industries. To threaten us with the idea that pop culture is going to disappear entirely because of piracy is just moronic.
I believe in paying money for products that earn it. I do not believe in a pricing and distribution model that still thinks it’s 1998. And I really don’t believe in censoring the internet so that studio and label executives can add a few more millions onto their already enormous money pile.
Treat your customers with respect , and they’ll do the same to you. And that is how you fight piracy.
"That's the trouble with political jokes in this country... they get elected!" -- Dave Lippman