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It’s been a while since I made a post about piracy and my thoughts on the subject, and it’s a subject I have some pretty strong opinions about, so here goes.

I am firmly of the belief that the large production and distribution companies that are getting riled up the most about piracy are either completely out of touch, or are approaching the topic purely from a standpoint of minimising financial loss (not directly reducing piracy per se), neither of which should be surprising. Unfortunately the end result of their actions is that they have created something of a “war” between the corporations and the pirates, as it were. Allow me to elaborate. There are a few key factors I see as being major contributors to the current situation. I believe that in many ways, these have only served to worsen piracy, instead of the alleged end goal of reducing it.

The first exacerbating factor is the ongoing suits from the likes of the RIAA and MPAA. These are typically for ridiculous sums of money, filed against normal people, and in many cases have been filed against people who had never pirated anything in their lives (with the real perpetrator using an unauthorised, unsecured wireless connection, for example). Perhaps worse, these organisations acknowledge that none of the money reamed in this process ends up going back into the hands of the artists. Instead it’s used to fund yet more lawsuits (and presumably pad the pockets of the executives a little more). Instead of treating pirates as potential customers and attempting to convert them to paying customers, they treat pirates like dirt. Treating someone like dirt is not really an effective way to get them on your side, and many of those in the piracy community took the suits against others as a personal attack on the piracy community as a whole.

Related to the above, the corporations seem to be putting all their focus on attacking those who pirate content, instead of working out why they pirate and offering them alternate routes that do generate revenue. I’m not sure whether it’s because some analyst has told them it’s the option that makes them the most money (or loses them the least), or if it’s because internal bureaucracy is tying them to the old business models that predated the Internet. Whichever it is, things need to change if they want to convert pirates into customers.

To give a concrete example, I followed with some interest (and later, dismay) the Spotify project. In essence, this is a music streaming service, akin to online radio, but takes on more of an iTunes-esque interface, allowing the user to pick which songs they want to play from the very extensive Spotify music library. There are other nifty features, such as distributed streaming (similar to torrents, the bandwidth load is shared by clients for popular songs), but these aren’t important to this discussion. Users can either use a free, ad-supported model (in certain approved countries), or play a flat monthly fee for ad-free playback. All of the music is of course legally licensed, and the artists/labels receive a cut of the monthly ad/paid revenue. I think that this sort of service is the way forward, and certainly extremely viable with the advent of ubiquitous broadband internet.  The main drawback from the user’s perspective is that music is only ever streamed and not downloaded, resulting in relatively high bandwidth usage and no offline playback, but if anything this should make it more attractive to content distributors. Additionally, the service allows users to purchase songs within the software (similar to iTunes), and a core feature is helping users to discover new music by playing similar songs from the same genre. It was with great disappointment, then, that I saw many big name producers pulling songs from the service a few months after its inception, many of these being very popular songs and artists (for example, Metallica and AC/DC). As far as I know, this trend has continued, and the service is now largely dominated by independent music, lowering its attractiveness for the casual listener who wants to be able to play their favourite songs. I was strongly considering paying the monthly fee to access Spotify until I saw this take place. So, in effect, their knee-jerk reaction cost them my money (and surely the money of many others). To look at it another way, they could have converted someone away from piracy through supporting a cool distribution service that is effective in the Internet age, but shot themselves in the foot through their stupid desire to cling to dated distribution models. This is a situation that has been repeated in many other cases, and only serves to perpetuate pirates’ desire to obtain their content in the most convenient way possible; by pirating it.

One model that I would love to see take hold (and indeed is starting to, although it’s exuberantly overpriced), is a local on-demand distribution model. This is where licensed content is distributed to local worldwide hubs (potentially run by local ISPs for a revenue cut), and consumers are not charged by partner ISPs for bandwidth to download content from these hubs. Instead, ISPs/distributors offer a number of pricing plans, such as pay-per-view content, a monthly flat fee, purchasable DRM-free content, etc etc. People can pay however is convenient for them, but the key is that they have access to the content that they want, when they want it. Content is kept up-to-date (and there is no distribution delay; for example, TV shows and movies are available worldwide the day they are released, without the delay that’s typically seen in New Zealand), and prices are kept low. Because the content is hosted on a local hub, it’s cheap data to transfer (it only travels the expensive international link once), and fast. This frees up the international bandwidth that torrents currently soak up, and because there are no data charges, the actual cost to the end user could be kept similar to what they currently pay to pirate content (download bandwidth has an associated cost; even pirating is not truly free). If I could get everything that I currently pirate, at around the same cost to me, through a completely legal channel, then I would switch tomorrow. Fact. They haven’t lost business through me pirating; this is not content that I would watch if I had to go out and buy a DVD or CD. They can, however, convert me into a paying customer for this content if they are smart about it. The beauty of it, is that piracy has turned me into a consumer of their content. They have a potential customer that they wouldn’t have had if piracy didn’t exist. But instead of doing something about it and trying to convert me to a paying customer, they instead try to stomp out piracy. The thing that created them a market in the first place.

Yarrr! /2009/10/facepalm.jpg

Telecom is soon to introduce a system similar to what I’ve described above, where they sell a TiVo set top box, and give free data to content downloaded through the system. It remains to be seen how well it works, but the box itself is prohibitively expensive, and I’d be surprised if the content itself wasn’t the same. I may do a follow-up post when they make pricing available.

As another example of a step in the right direction, I’ve been fairly impressed with Hulu (although restricting the content to the States only is something of an annoyance; however, somewhat understandable). It’s with extreme disappointment, then, that I discovered Hulu will become a paid service in the near future. It seems that every time the corporations take a step in the right direction, they chicken out and greedily try to grasp at revenue that simply isn’t there. They are already making money through ad revenue, but as soon as they charge for this service that was otherwise free to the end user, their customers will look elsewhere, in all likelihood to piracy. Way to go.

To summarise, my frustrations with the stupidity of production and distribution companies only serve to drive me to piracy more and more, and even let me feel good about it. I’m perfectly happy to pay money to support content that I enjoy (for example, I’ve been to the cinemas to watch around 4-5 movies this year), but they seem to be doing everything they can to put me off doing so. Convert me with attractive offerings, don’t try to beat me into submission. Regards, Tom <3.