Forget Piracy

Piracy for the purpose of this argument is the distribution or acquisition of content without making the appropriate purchase. The context at large is digital media, where the existing distribution model is evidently failing but the paradigm employed has stood for millennia. Producer (A) makes something (B) that you want; you give A something of equivalent value in exchange for B. Taking B without As consent is theft. The barter system is more codified thanks to currency, and the bartering part has given way to retail pricing but it's the same deal. A product is the livelihood of a producer, be that a musical album or a pair of pants. If you make imitation copies of a pair of pants and sell them under the claim that they are originals then you are clearly doing something illegal, you're denying someone their livelihood. This principle translates digitally. If you download music that you should have paid for you're pirating. It is a theft. That's really all there is to it.

Whether or not you agree with the way that content is being monetised is irrelevant. The producer has the right to distribute however they see fit and you have the right to choose not to participate. I find it hard to agree with any argument I've ever heard that piracy is not a crime. Piracy is a crime and there's no way to avoid this.

The thing that people seem to miss is that piracy is not really the problem here; it's not really the debate being had.

The debate is over the relevance of the status quo and the digital content industry's attempt to protect that distribution model to the detriment of its customers. Its customers are the people losing out, not the producers. There are two types of 'illegal' downloader:

  1. The downloader that would not partake of content if downloading for free wasn't an option. This downloaded constitutes a loss in potential revenue. The content industry’s desire to protect itself from these people is as legitimate as any shop wishing to prevent shoplifting. The point they won’t admit to is that if these people have no intention to make a legal purchase under any circumstances then the potential revenue loss could never be realised anyway. The industry has not lost any money - the only point where physical theft differs as the industry would lose material expense but this also undermines the case for digital copyright protection methods - you're not actually protecting anything.
  2. The downloader that contributes economically to that market by another means, which are numerous... either through popularising content and generating more legitimate sales, but also purchasing that very content or by participating in a secondary market. This demographic is difficult to track and to quantify but consider that the majority of people in England who illegally download music have in surveys been shown to also spend more on average legitimately purchasing albums than those people who do not download 'illegally'. This group of people is a nasty mire of a grey-area that the content industry has to be really careful of quite understandably. There’s no way to permit and infringement that generates revenue with one hand and persecute those that don’t with the other.
Brits who share and download music illegally are also among the biggest spenders on legal downloads, UK-based market watcher The Leading Question (TLQ) claimed today.
Active P2P users spend almost 4.5 times as much on legal music downloads as other music fans, a survey of more than 600 computer-using music fans conducted by TLQ revealed.

The Register

So this all really boils down to the market's dissatisfaction with the way that the content industry is so aggressively chasing a potential market which doesn't really exist in the name of copyright protection. All they are really protecting is their business model; they are resistant to change and a crusade against non-customers that actually harms your real customers to most of us seems to be totally counterproductive.

Consider that computer games such as Spore, with the most restrictive digital rights management of its time was also the most pirated game of it's time. That DRM didn't even slow the pirates down yet legitimate customers had to wrestle that DRM and it's restrictions in order to play the game they bought legally. Pirates didn't have those restrictions. The software intended to restrict the pirates only restricted legitimate customers. It is backwards, utterly foolish and shows a lack of understanding of both the technology and the digital world and the realities of content consumption.

Alongside highlighting the folly of the old model, games have also championed a model for alternative distribution. Micro-transactions allow for any gamer to download and play the game at no cost, the content is monetised by sale of additional features and services. The open access level widens the audience essentially using the game's basic value as bait, and real income is generated by selling additional value to that expanded audience all with the added benefit of free word of mouth advertising as a player encourages his friends to play a free game with him/her.

Ironically, the most popular feature of Spore, its social community and sharing features were only available to legitimate customers anyway, further compounding an already ludicrous situation.

That alternative doesn't work for all media however. How do you add value to a movie? Extra scenes and commentaries are not appealing enough to warrant distribution of the movie itself for free, at least in my experience. So we have services such as Netflix that sell their service rather than the content directly. The model succeeds where the subscription volume becomes more profitable than attempting to sell each movie (or rent them) individually. The option to be a movie glutton is more appealing than paying for one or two movies and the subscription is a constant regardless of the frequency with which you watch. The industry is resistant as they feel that each viewing has a value and therefore each viewing should have a price again not realising that if the restrictions of this paradigm outweigh that potential, unrealisable profit.

iTunes is another relevant story, specifically iTunes +. Once upon a time iTunes had DRM on music. DRM was removed for a trial period, and improved sales so much that now iTunes music is entirely DRM free. It hasn't demonstrably reduced piracy, but it has improved profits.

Piracy is an irrelevance; it isn't actually costing the content industry any money. It is being used as a scapegoat to preserve an antiquated business model in the desperate hope that per-unit distributions increased but unattainable potential income can somehow be forced upon the market. They see that six albums are worth 100 bucks, and that your streaming music service will allow you to listen to far more albums for an equivalent investment. They refuse to accept that the individual enjoying that service might elect not to purchase six albums and fail to realise that profit. In pursuing that unachievable potential they are alienating and frustrating their customers and a frustrated customer is not a repeat customer.

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