More thoughts on Piracy

It appears that for now, SOPA and PIPA are dead.  The word “postponed” is used:

Sure, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) used the word “postponed” in their announcements, saying that Congress would only take a breather, but would certainly not give up for good on its goal of passing some sort of legislation designed to combat overseas “rogue” websites hosting pirated American content.

But for all intents and purposes, the bills are dead.  At least for now. But that doesn’t mean that “some sort of legislation” will not be as bad, or equally as bad.  This has been an ongoing battle for almost 15 years now, and it isn’t going to go away.

I found this article by a professional television writer, detailing why she was against these acts, even though she could be – and may actually be – impacted by piracy.  There was a point in this that I think capsulizes what this battle has been about all along:

What do Darrell Issa, Nancy Pelosi, the ACLU, Daily Kos,, Markos Moulitsas and Ron Paul have in common? They all oppose SOPA/PIPA.

Personally, I’ve never agreed with Darrel Issa on any issue ever, but I agree with him on this.

How is this possible? Because the divide over SOPA/PIPA isn’t political, it’s between those who understand how the internet works and those who don’t,  those who see opportunities for growth and innovation and those who fear change and are holding on to old business models for dear life.

During the House Judiciary Committee’s SOPA hearings last December, it became nightmarishly clear Congressmembers who support these bills are in the “don’t understand how the internet works” camp.

In a nutshell – holding on to old business models.   I’m old enough to remember when the MPAA had conniption fits about a new technology, and wanted it banned or strictly regulated.  It was going to “destroy the film industry.”  The technology?  Videotape recorders.  A few years later, videos were one of their major revenue streams.  The recording industry had similar conniptions about cassette tapes, digital tapes, compact disks, and digital music.  Each time, they’ve raised the specter of “horrific losses” and “piracy,” it turns out a few years later to be one of their profit centers.  But they say exactly the same things every time!  Literally, you can read a statement from the MPAA about videotapes and then read one about recordable DVDs two decades later, and they’re virtually word-for-word the same.

What it means is that the media industries do not want to change their business models, or think about how to make money from this new technology and capability.  Instead, they want to legislate it away.   It’s not until they are forced to, either by lack of action, or new competitors, to change their methods, only to find that it becomes one of their significant revenue streams.

What I’ve seen is that a serious percentage of what they define as “piracy” is actually people trying to do something that the media companies have made inconvenient or extremely expensive to obtain.    iTunes is a major success.  Why?  Because it gave people to buy a song for a reasonable sum.  Along with a few other similar services, they put a serious crimp in file sharing activity and “piracy.”  What did the music industry miss that Apple didn’t?  That most people don’t want to buy an entire CD at $10 to $20 just because there’s a song (or two) on it they like.  They might, if it’s an artist they particularly like who has a record of putting out “strong” CD’s, but for the most part, people wanted a choice.  When given that, at a reasonable price, they went with it instead of pirating it.

One of my favorite publishers, Baen Books, has been electronically publishing for over a decade.  They even have a Free Library, and in the introduction to that, the librarian quotes the publisher:

The first is a simple truth which Jim Baen is fond of pointing out: most people would rather be honest than dishonest.

The only time that mass scale petty thievery becomes a problem is when the perception spreads, among broad layers of the population, that a given product is priced artificially high due to monopolistic practices and/or draconian legislation designed to protect those practices. But so long as the “gap” between the price of a legal product and a stolen one remains both small and, in the eyes of most people, a legitimate cost rather than gouging, 99% of them will prefer the legal product.

Baen put that into action, charging less for the e-book, didn’t put any restrictions on the format, and didn’t bother with “protections.”   For most of the past 12 years, by following these precepts, Baen was the only publisher who was making money on its electronic books, and is the least pirated publisher around.  Every other publisher was coming up with ways to “protect” their works, using special formats, and charging as much for an e-book as for a paper copy.   They lost money hand over fist on it, and had “piracy” problems.

That is the lesson that most of the media still doesn’t grasp.  If you’ve made it too expensive, put unnecessary roadblocks in the way, and made it too inconvenient to get it “legally,” then people will find a way to get it illegally and cheaper.  Hence, “piracy.”   I said in the comments on a previous post that I used to belong to a fan board for a television show.  One of the the complaints by people overseas was that they had to wait 6 months to a year before the show would be on their local broadcast or cable.  If they tried to watch it on the network’s site or on Hulu or iTunes, they were blocked.  I’ve run into this on occasion myself when trying to view a YouTube video, or see a clip on a foreign network site.  I’m blocked from seeing it.  Why? Well, because the media companies have (or would like)  syndication deals, and they don’t sell advertising overseas.  So the person who may really want to see it either has to wait a long time, or they can … pirate a copy.

Now imagine if the media company had instead figured out a way to sell advertising for that country on the streaming site, or charged a reasonable fee for “out of country.”  What would that fan do?  The odds are they’d go with the legal viewing,  and the company would get money from it.    In other words, given a choice, people would rather be honest. Which is why the statement that “they don’t get the Internet” is true.  The Internet is international.  The old model of distribution using physical movement of media between countries no longer holds true.   “Buzz” about a movie, a television show, or a song can spread around the world in a heartbeat.  Fans can be anywhere in the world.  If you make it impossible or extremely difficult for them to get it legally, they’re going to become “pirates.”    But the media companies don’t want to think that way, so the end result is that they spend huge sums trying to ban “piracy” or go after “pirates” instead of turning them into paying customers.

No one really disputes that there is piracy on the Internet, and that it isn’t a problem.  What is subject to dispute is the actual costs of it, and methods being used to “fight” it.   What we don’t need is a law that simply allows companies to be lazy when it comes to their business models, protecting the “same ol’, same ol’.”  That’s why Congress needs to listen to the people who do understand the Internet.  Up until now, they’ve been listening to the wrong people, and the laws that have been passed don’t stop piracy, but do make life miserable for everyone else.



Filed under Business, Politics, Technology

6 responses to “More thoughts on Piracy

  1. Very well said, Norbrook. Thank you for this insight.

  2. Thank you so much for these three diaries on SOPA & PIPA. I have been sending the links out to all my crew. Lots of people, including me, have been confused about all the issues involved. I have really appreciated your clarifications and have shared them as far as I can.

    Just to be sort of OT, but it has seemed to me that many of our current struggles in politics, in law and in society seem to be based in fear. Fear of change, fear of the future, and a desperate clinging to the “way things used to be.” We can never go back but we can go forward with strength and purpose instead of fear.

    • Just had to add this that I read once:

      “Time and tide carries all men. Those who will not be lead will be dragged”

      Don’t know about you but I much prefer being lead. ♥

    • Oh, exactly. But here’s some fun from 1982:

      But now we are facing a very new and a very troubling assault on our fiscal security, on our very economic life and we are facing it from a thing called the video cassette recorder and its necessary companion called the blank tape. And it is like a great tidal wave just off the shore. This video cassette recorder and the blank tape threaten profoundly the life-sustaining protection, I guess you would call it, on which copyright owners depend, on which film people depend, on which television people depend and it is called copyright.

      Because unless the Congress recognizes the rights of creative property owners as owners of private property, that this property that we exhibit in theaters, once it leaves the post-theatrical markets, it is going to be so eroded in value by the use of these unlicensed machines, that the whole valuable asset is going to be blighted. In the opinion of many of the people in this room and outside of this room, blighted, beyond all recognition. It is a piece of sardonic irony that this asset, which unlike steel or silicon chips or motor cars or electronics of all kinds — a piece of sardonic irony that while the Japanese are unable to duplicate the American films by a flank assault, they can destroy it by this video cassette recorder.

      and later on:

      On-line service providers and others have a key role to play in freeing cyberspace of the taint of copyright lawlessness. Accountability for copyright violations committed by users is as essential for advancing this indispensable goal.
      Who is responsible if a valuable copyrighted work is downloaded from a provider, and then copied on a digital video machine from which thousands of copies can be made, the last copy as pure and pristine as the first? And if no one can be held responsible, then who and what is to prevent the flood that will surely follow? This is a loophole larger than a parade of eight-wheelers through which a dam-busting avalanche of violations can rupture the purpose of your bill every day

      Doesn’t change much, does it? 🙄

  3. Good points, Norbrook.

    I am against piracy, but my own views are biased (being that I’ve worked in television animation and am a freelance illustrator at the moment), and I’ve always felt that there’s too much of the “well, if only the corporations would just….” memes….

    …But I also felt that SOPA and PIPA were dead wrong. They were the wrong way to take on piracy; to use a rather cliched phrase, they were trying to “put out the fire with gasoline”. And since most anti-piracy actions have been carried out using existing laws, why bother with these? Piracy is a major problem and is certainly one of the dark elements of the Internet, and it should be addressed, but not with things like SOPA and PIPA. There has to be a better, smarter way. I have not idea what that will be and I’m not going to pretend to be some smart-alec, know-it-all hipster with a plan. Other people with better knowledge than me will have to do that.

    Both bills are dead as proverbial doornails, and even if (and that’s a big “if”) they would have passed both houses of Congress, they would have been stopped by a veto by President Obama, with no possibility of the veto being overturned. The White House made damned sure that everyone knew this. Bottom line–we need to make sure that we not only work to elect people to Congress who have a better knowledge of the Internet and ‘Net technology…..we need to make sure to re-elect the most tech-savvy President we have.

    Thanks for letting me get that off my chest!

    • The thing is, that if you look, the technology people have been (for years) saying “talk to us, we’ve got ideas.” The reason I (and tech people in general) are talking about corporations like this is that it’s been a repetitive theme for the past 30+ years.

      Most of the anti-piracy legislation that has come out is not designed to protect the individual copyright holder, like yourself or even me. It’s designed to hand industry groups a very large club to use, to protect their profits. Over the past decade, there has been a lot of reports of just how the MPAA and RIAA have misused that, to the extent that there’s been a reflexive response to any attempt to deal with piracy in an effective manner, one that actually preserves rights.