Here to Stay

Here to Stay

I’m probably treading dangerous water with this topic, but I’m going to dive in anyway. Internet piracy is a hot-button topic. It has been for a long time. It probably will be forever. Because it’s not going anywhere.

As the Internet seeps deeper into every aspect of our lives, more services crop up which allow legitimate access to digital media. Netflix, for example, allows you to stream movies and there’s an online store for just about every e-reader out there. In fact you don’t have to own an e-reader to read digital books, you can download a free reader from Amazon and use it to read your validly purchased digital books. Yet even with services like Netflix and iTunes, piracy is still a huge issue. So much so big corporations are putting pressure on the government to crack down on Internet piracy, giving rise to such horrible bills as SOPA in the US.

So why is it, with all the legitimate alternatives out there, people still pirate digital media? My guess is lack of understanding as to why people choose piracy over legitimate distribution. When asked why they pirate, the number one answer from most people is DRM (Digital Rights Management). DRM is what companies use to control how people use media they purchase on the Internet. Classic example; when you purchase music on iTunes you can only synch your library with up to ten devices before the library becomes ‘locked.’ You then either have to disable devices from your account, or purchase the music again on a new account.

Take a moment to think about that. If you purchase a CD, you can carry that CD with you anywhere and play it on anyone’s stereo. When your walkman breaks you can purchase a new one and play your CD on it. You can do this endlessly for as many years as the CD lasts. If physical CDs contained the same kind of restrictions as digital media, you would only be able to play your CD on ten different stereos before you would be told to re-purchase the CD in order to continue using it. People may argue that you can carry your MP3 player or iPad with you anywhere and still play the music, but that’s comparable to carrying your stereo, or a jukebox, with you everywhere you go.

Music isn’t the only industry clamping down on digital media. Video game releases often feature terrible DRM. Diablo III and Starcraft II, for example, require you to be online in order to play. Starcraft II can be played if the Internet connection drops, though you won’t receive any achievements, but a disconnection from the Diablo III server usually results in death. The Diablo III release also featured server issues which resulted in people waiting in a queue for single player access. At the time, people joked that the pirates were probably getting to enjoy playing the game. And that’s just the issue. DRM seems to punish people for legitimate purchases, while pirates are rewarded for their bad behavior. Spore, for example, could only be installed on three computers before the disk would ‘lock’, preventing you from reinstalling the game ever again. Consequently, Spore was one of the most pirated games of all time. The final estimates were something along the lines of EA selling one million copies while another one million copies of the game were pirated.

Why do people pirate media protected by DRM instead of purchasing it legitimately? The primary reason is because they find DRM insulting. It’s insulting for a company to assume their customers are thieves and take preemptive action to prevent them from stealing. It’s sort of like those commercials they play on DVDs that tell you it’s bad to steal movies. The people seeing those have already bought your movie. Downloaded copies don’t include previews or those special ‘don’t steal this!’ messages. You’re essentially preaching to the choir.

Another reason people pirate is that it’s much easier to obtain something illegally than it is to buy. No you didn’t read that wrong. If you live outside the US, it can be difficult to find places that allow you access to their streaming services due to IP restrictions. Hulu, for example, isn’t available in Canada. Europeans often get screwed in terms of video games since the US release will be days, sometimes weeks before the European release. Half the time you don’t even have to download a program to pirate media anymore. There are several converters which will let you snag songs off of YouTube from the comfort of your favorite Internet browser.

It’s a sad fact of reality that some people will never pay money for something if they can get it for free. But many people are more than willing to contribute money to things they love. Kickstarter and the Humble Indie Bundles are proof of that. Most of the people who pirate things for reasons other than ease of access or DRM weren’t going to pay money for the product they pirated in the first place. Potential income isn’t the same as real income. Just because someone downloaded something from the Internet to give it a try doesn’t mean they would have purchased it if it hadn’t been available online. My guess is these people make up a small portion of Internet pirates; the portion you aren’t going to be able to get through to no matter how hard you try.

The overwhelming response to piracy is to put a stop to it, absolutely positively end it. I’m reminded of Princess Leia’s comment in Star Wars: A New Hope about ‘the more you tighten your fingers the more planets will slip through your grasp.’ The more difficult we make life for legitimate customers, the more readily they’re going to turn to free alternatives.

So what’s the solution? Offer a better alternative.

Steam comes close for video games. It’s a service that allows people to access their games from any computer so long as they login to their online account. It’s also a game distributor. They sometimes run crazy sales where you can get fairly new games at half-price. Steam can also be used by game developers to make online multiplayer easy to access. Steam is, in and of itself, a form of DRM, which does cause some issues (you can’t play most Steam games offline). But at least it adds something to the community rather than existing solely as DRM. Winning the community of your consumers, by offering an easy to access, cheap alternative, is the best way to turn them off of piracy. That’s what Amazon did by making digital books readily available when they released the Kindle.

Will offering such alternatives eliminate Internet piracy? No. As I said in the opening, it’s probably impossible to completely eliminate Internet piracy. But understanding why people choose to pirate and adapting the response to address those issues is a better step in the right direction than many of the practices in use at the moment. If large corporations chose to respect their consumers, the consumers might choose to respect them in return.

What can you do about those you can’t reach? At the moment, probably nothing except hope their piracy results in free advertising. If a pirate tells a person about your product, that other person might buy it. They might tell five people and those five people might buy it and recommend it to another five people. Does that justify the practice? No, but what else can you do? Heavy-handed reactions only make the problem worse.

7 Replies to “Here to Stay”

  1. I agree entirely. Piracy is something that will never go away, nor should it. While many IP owners may not think it’s fair that they don’t get credit for their work, the fact remains that most of the people who pirate just would do without if they couldn’t get it for free. Eliminating piracy will not miraculously result in a massive increase of earnings for every IP owner on the planet. The solution for IP owners is to get used to it, and if possible, even embrace the culture behind piracy.

    There’s a good reason Microsoft has never gone after college kids who use pirated versions of Office. It’s simple: allow these kids to get hooked on your product during the period of their lives where they need to use it daily, and one day when they leave school and make money they’ll buy the product they can’t live without.

    It’s called branding and it’s very successful. The same thing applies to authors and musicians. Let the people download your work for free. You might just be creating a fan for life!

    1. I agree, though I’m sure there are plenty of people who would blast me for that since I’m a writer and hope to someday make a living off my writing.

      I believe if someone really loves something, if the quality is great enough or their experience with it good enough, they will pay money for that thing. Even if they can get it for free. There are examples of this all over the internet (Minecraft’s success is a prime example, love the game or hate it, it’s successful). As Notch, Minecraft’s creator, has pointed out, piracy can be a form of free advertising. The pirate might not buy the game, but he might tell four friends. Two of them might buy the game. All four people who tried it might tell other people and some of those people might buy it. Pretty soon ten or twenty people who wouldn’t have heard of the game otherwise have purchased it.

      As you said, the trick is to turn it to your advantage.

  2. We’ve already discussed this topic, but I still take issue with this:

    “People may argue that you can carry your MP3 player or iPad with you anywhere and still play the music, but that’s comparable to carrying your stereo, or a jukebox, with you everywhere you go.”

    This isn’t an issue. It’s really a moot point in this day and age. A vast majority of people have smart phones, and therefor *probably* (or, if they don’t, they have the ability to) already carry their music with them everywhere anyway. It’s not like ten years ago, when you would have had to lug your stereo with you. It’s quite easy now, and most people already do it.

    I agree with most of your arguments, though. DRM isn’t good, and there has to be *some* way people can come up with better solutions, but then again, tell that to the US government (for way more than the pirating issue). >.<

    1. The point I’m trying to make with this statement is that, just because technology has grown more portable, it doesn’t excuse exploiting the consumer with the way digital media is distributed. Yes, phones, MP3 players and even computers are way more portable than they were ten years ago. But the MP3 player and the music you play on it are two different products. MP3 players are marketed the same way walkmans and discmans were marketed ten years ago; as portable music players (some are even portable video players now).

      It used to be you had to pay $15 for a 12-15 track CD and you might like two or three tracks on it (unless it was something awesome like Bat out of Hell I or II). Today, instead of buying the physical disc, you spend $.99 for a single track and get only the songs you really love. I think that’s fair. But I maintain that you should still be able to do the same things with that track you used to be able to do with the tracks on your CD. You should be able to play them on an unlimited number of devices. You should be able to let friends borrow them, or give them to someone else if you decide you don’t want them anymore.

      The same is true of books; I discovered David Eddings because you let me borrow the books you had and I eventually purchased the entire series. Even the Kindle has a function which allows you to lend your digital books (if the author has it enabled), although I feel the function is too limited.

      The fact that iTunes purchased music is locked to a set number of devices is DRM. It doesn’t matter if you think the number is high enough it’ll never be an issue. DRM is DRM. And I find DRM of any form unacceptable. My example is that it’s akin to marrying your CD to its stereo; ten years ago the idea would have been absurd. Why is it any less absurd because the stereo is smaller?

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