Nov 22, 2011

The Piracy Dilemma

This post is about the current controversy surrounding copyright and the future of the Internet.

Anti-piracy laws are being introduced that would allow the government to shut down web sites at the slightest provocation, and force Internet companies like Google to cave in to the demands of government censors or risk being shut downThe word piracy is used constantly, with content creators such as movie studios, the music industry, and publishers decrying how much money they are losing by illegal file sharing online.
(image credit: The Pirate Shack)

The newest legislation to be introduced, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), has generated opposition by some of the most powerful players in Silicon Valley — Google, Facebook, Zynga, eBay, Twitter, Yahoo, and LinkedIn — who have taken out full-page advertisements to oppose the bill (see it here). Even Microsoft has opposed the bill, noteworthy because Microsoft earns most of its revenue by licensing software--which can, of course, be pirated. The New York Times ran an editorial about SOPA, calling it the Great Firewall of America.  Another editorial explains why this legislation is unwise and overly  broad  HERE.

There is a lot at stake here, and it will affect you. Yes, you.

This new legislation, if enacted, would attack the sharing, openness, and participation that the Internet represents, creating an Internet of walled kingdoms patrolled by government censors,  As a recent study pointed out, the SOPA legislation could lead to a decline in Internet innovation.

Entertainment interests blame "rogue" sites and "overseas pirates" who steal content and make it available elsewhere on the Internet at a cheaper price. In the name of protecting intellectual property and making the Internet safe for users, they risk destroying what makes the Internet so special in the first place.

Some Internet service providers are even being pressured to spy on their customers, and track what sites their customers visit, a shocking violation of privacy and free speech. The European Court of Justice recently struck down such plans after a 7 year battle (LINK)

Why do people pirate movies and music? 

The reality is that "piracy" is simply an expression of demand. If consumers cannot get what they are seeking from content providers, they will get it somewhere else, usually through unauthorized channels.  Content creators claim that there should be no reason to pirate any media at all, since it is all available through legitimate means, so anyone who pirates must simply be determined to break the law.
(image credit: gamrfeed)

The reality is not so simple.

 "Citizens increasingly hear the word copyright and hate what is behind it. Many see the current system as a tool to punish and withhold, not a tool to recognize and reward."

--European Union Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes

How does this affect ME...??

To give you example of what this means in real life, let's take the example of movies, one of the biggest sources of unauthorized distribution online. The studios claim to be losing billions of dollars in revenue through  illegal filesharing.

But are they giving their customers what they are asking for? Very often the people who buy legal content end up with a more inferior product than if they obtained it through filesharing. 

With a legally purchased movie, you are burdened with:
  • an ever-increasing number of previews you have to skip past in order to reach the main menu so you can start watching your film
  • an FBI piracy warning that you cannot skip past
  • security settings that may not let you play your DVD on your DVD player or computer
  • lower quality resolution on movie downloads to discourage copying
  • an inability to make a backup copy of a product you legally purchased (known as Digital Rights Management) Read more about DRM here.
Now consider downloading the same movie online:
  • no FBI message you're forced to watch
  • higher resolution than legal downloads
  • no restrictions on how many devices you can view your movie on
  • no annoying previews to jump through
  • more choice of movies than legal offerings
In essence, the people who download illegally are the ones who end up with the superior product. 

UPDATE: Warner Home Entertainment's latest example of clulessness would have customers drive to a kiosk to pay to legally rip their DVDs, which would only work (maybe) in approved devices. Warner calls this safe and convenient. Public Knowledge has a scathing review of this scheme HERE, along with this helpful info graphic:

Another perfect example of this is an article in the Los Angeles Times about the studios' clumsy attempts to give their customers more options, but makes them jump through hoops. To watch a legally purchased movie on an iPad requires registering on two sites and installing two new pieces of software on a PC and another application on a mobile phone or tablet to download the film. Even then the movie won't play, because it's incompatible. The person interviewed for the story finally gave up on the process. LINK
(image source: Virgin Tech)

Illegally downloaded movies have no such restrictions. 

In an article called Movie Fans Turn To Piracy When the Online Cupboard is Bare, Cory Doctorow writes that studios have not figured out how to offer a good selection of their movies online for people to purchase and download. The selection is very good on filesharing sites, however, but trying to legally purchase movies, assuming you can even find a movie you want, will mean higher prices, less choice, and more restrictions. Many older movies are not even available on either DVD or online through the big studios. The only way to watch some older films is to download them from people who have put older copies online. Read the whole article here.

In an infamous case that clearly illustrates the downsides to legitimately buying content, people who purchased Sony music CDs to play on their computers were forced to install a program embedded on the CDs that allowed Sony to control how users would consume that music. Worse, this program opened up users' computers to attacks by hackers.  After the ensuing outcry, Sony issued a patch that was supposed to mitigate the damage that had been done, but only made the problem worse. Sony ended up paying millions of dollars in fines and restitution. you can read about the whole sorry saga here.

People who downloaded the same music faced no such problems. The people who tried to do the right thing were the ones who were inconvenienced and harmed.

When the distribution system fails, a black market will arise.

Examples of this are numerous, and it is amazing that large content creators have not figured this out yet. One good example involves comic books. Glenn Hauman has an interesting article about a comic book story that was never printed. It was killed off and never released. Fans soon realized that this comic book series existed and the only way they were able to read it was by downloading it online. Read the article here.

The business model for studios and music companies requires them to have absolute control over how their products are used by consumers. This of course is increasingly unacceptable to consumers, who are used to taking their content with them wherever they go, and using it however they wish. As long as content creators continue to fight the wishes of their customers, they will have to contend with the filesharing whether they like it or not.

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