If you visited this website on January 18th, 2012, you will have been locked out – for that day, Spineless Liberal went on strike. And won.PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.
Internet piracy is a huge problem. It takes money away from artists and recording companies, preventing re-investment in new acts. This is a problem.
But two bills which were due to be passed in the US Congress – the SOPA (Stop Internet Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) bills – were not the right way to go about fighting them. In very brief terms, these laws would have allowed commercial businesses who felt they were losing money to ask a judge to instruct ISPs (Internet Service Providers – AOL, TalkTalk…) to block access to users in the US for these sites, whether the sites are hosted in the US, or more likely, abroad.
Some major issues:-
1) It doesn’t work – all it means is you can’t access http://www.Imapirate.com but you can still get on the site by typing in its IP address – 192.249.2942 etc etc…
2) The music industry has shown itself to be deeply flawed and irresponsible when it comes to piracy – the Recording Industry Association of America has subpoenaed a dead woman, a grandmother who was accused of sharing 2,000 tracks of gangsta rap, a family with no computer, and a 12-year-old girl. Serial criminals, clearly.
3) What a wonderful model of liberty to send to other countries – maybe China’s Great Firewall can be updated with this technology…
4) Sites which had links to illegal file-sharing posted on them also could be blocked – if someone posted a video to YouTube using music illegally, a link on Facebook, or a blog on WordPress, those sites could be held accountable – it may have led to these sites shutting down, and it could easily have prevented new start-ups.
The major issue is – why should anyone have the right to limit my access to the internet? The internet is a wonderful tool – it has organised protests, riot clean-up, toppled dictators and more. Admittedly, it can be used for crime, but if we limit its criminal edge, who is to say that the sites used to organise #Tahrir Square protests wouldn’t suffer next… YouTube and Twitter may very well offer ways to spread pirated produce, but they have a side that we cannot and should not sacrifice.
The legislation was hugey flawed, and on the 18th, the internet gained its newest ability – the ability to fight-back.
Wikipedia, BoingBoing and Reddit went totally black, shutting down for the day; Wired censored its content; and Tumblr and Wordpress.com enabled their users to blackout their blogs in protest – all showed messages warning people of the dangers of SOPA/PIPA. Over 10,o00,000 people signed a petition against SOPA/PIPA, and over 3,000,000 e-mails were sent (not including those sent through Wikipedia’s interface). Over 2,200,000 tweets were sent on Twitter with the hashtag #sopa. Senators started coming out against SOPA/PIPA all day.
It seems to have worked. The House Judiciary Committee which was considering whether to send SOPA to the house abruptly adjourned Friday, with no new day set to vote. It looks like SOPA/PIPA may be quietly disposed with… Worryingly however, Megaupload, a site used by many people to illegally share video, has been shut down by the US Department of Justice – this site can also be legitimately used in order to share your own work, or files you wish to legally send to friends. Our worst fears and warnings have been realised. The battle is not over yet.
Please, when we’re talking about piracy, take time to look at cause and symptoms – the symptom is piracy, but what is the cause. As opposed to just simply banning everything we don’t like, why not try looking at the reasons it happens?
Next time you load up a legally bought DVD, look me in the eye and tell me you’re not infuriated by the time it takes to watch the un-skipable adverts at the start. Next time you simply want to watch one specific episode of Family Guy, The Simpsons or The West Wing online because you don’t want to buy the entire box-set, tell me it’s not far simpler to watch things illegally online. Next time you walk to the shops in the rain, tell me it isn’t easier to watch that film on your computer.
But wait, you say – you can legally watch films on your computer – true, that’s because companies have started to adapt to the 21st Century. But not always. Rocky Agrawal has an excellent analysis of why people pirate here.
A simplistic approach to calculating the economic harm from piracy would be to multiply the retail price of content by the volume of content downloaded. This is the kind of idiocy that Hollywood uses when calculating economic harm. But it results in a grossly inflated number because not all piracy is the same.
Let’s take a look at some of the types of piracy:
- Piracy by people who could afford to pay the price of content and are willing to pay that price, but choose not to because it’s easy to get the content for free.
- Piracy by people who can’t afford to pay the price.
- Piracy by people who could afford to pay the price, but don’t believe the content is worth the price that the distributor has set.
- Piracy by people who could afford to pay the price, are willing to, but have no legal means of acquiring the content.
Of these four types of piracy, only the first one causes economic harm to the distributors and producers of content. That is the scenario where they lose money that they otherwise would have received.
Hollywood could mitigate the losses on this type of piracy by making content more easily accessible online. We’ve seen that if Hollywood provides easier access to content, a lot of people will choose that alternative. Hulu is perhaps the best example of this. Instead of having to wait in the mail for a DVD of Psych, I can watch it online, legally.
Piracy has costs. Besides being illegal, the user interface is terrible and you make your computer susceptible to viruses and spyware. Hulu made watching content legally easier than pirating it. The company created a great interface, has quality content and has become the leading destination for premium video content in the United States. Even their subscription service has become a reasonable success, with more than 1.5 million subscribers. Hulu’s business grew 60% last year to almost $420 million in revenue, according to a blog post by CEO Jason Kilar.
In the other three cases, piracy itself isn’t costing Hollywood any money — that’s money executives are leaving on the table because they refuse to adapt to 21st century markets and distribution methods.
Much of the piracy that exists in developing countries is by people who can’t afford to pay the rates that distributors have set. When I lived in Malaysia, one of the music labels I talked to had set the price of MP3 downloads at roughly the same as the U.S. price — $1 per song. This is in a country where an iPhone is one month’s salary.
In the SOPA debate, they argue that sites are making money off ads that point people to pirated content. But if the studios and record labels stepped in and provided a legitimate alternative, they would make even more money. The music label could offer a legal model that worked for Malays and the label: an ad-supported music service, where consumption was encouraged instead of discouraged. Because they didn’t offer that, people resorted to piracy.
Take a show like Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. It’s a great show and I would love to watch it. But as it’s currently sold, I have to sign up for cable or satellite (at a cost of $30-$60 a month) and then HBO (another $15-$20 a month). I’m not willing to do that. I would be happy to pay $2 to $3 an episode. But they won’t sell it to me that way. That’s $8 to $12 a month in lost revenue. Because the incremental cost of distribution is almost zero, this would be nearly all profit. There are plenty of substitute goods. Instead of watching Real Time, I’ll read a book or watch something else. This is also an interesting case because Real Time is a time-sensitive show. There’s practically no economic value the week after it airs. (Unlike, say, an episode of the Sopranos.)
The fourth bucket is another type I ran into in Malaysia. I wanted my dose of American TV (Malaysian TV is awful), but I couldn’t access Hulu. I was willing to pay $200 a year for access, but Hollywood didn’t want to take my money. I could have used a third-party proxy server (and paid them) to make it look like I was accessing Hulu from the United States. Or I could have resorted to BitTorrent. This was another lost opportunity for Hollywood to increase their revenue.
In every scenario I can think of, Hollywood executives are leaving money on the table and then blaming piracy for its woes. Instead of innovating to meet the needs of the market, it is choosing to legislate to try to protect decades-old business models that won’t survive changing consumer behavior.
In my personal experience, all this is true. I had to do a project on Doctor Who recently, and individual episodes are impossible to find online, legally or illegally – luckily a colleague on the project already had the DVD.
When I lived in Prague, English-language DVDs, specific CDs, and video games in English were impossible to find, making piracy a tempting alternative.
It is a very obvious point that people who pirate (not that I do, ever have or ever would do – nor would you, I’m sure) aren’t “stealing” content that they would normally pay for. Imagine going to a fancy corporate event with a buffet – even if you’re not hungry, you’ll eat. Why not, it’s free. Even if it’s things you would never normally buy, you’ll take advantage of one of life’s few free lunches – literally. Pirates will watch films online they may never have paid for. They will listen to music that they would never have shelled out money for – even, perhaps, buying future albums, and disseminating the artist’s art.
“As for the special situation in China, it does not seem to be easy to obtain Western music via legal channels, so I have the following suggestion for our fans: If you can find and buy our legal CDs, I express my thanks for your support. If you cannot find it, I think that downloading from the Internet is a more acceptable option than buying pirated CDs. Our music is easy to find on the Internet, and you might not need to spend much effort to find most of our songs. If you like our songs after you’ve heard them, please feel free to share it with your friends. As I have put all my effort and heart into my music, I sincerely hope that more and more people can share the enjoyment with us.”
This is the man who offered one of his albums The Slip online – totally free, with the words “This ones on me”. I’d never listened to NIN before, but after this, I’m a convert. If I ever get the chance, I’ll see him live. I’ve bought albums since. He has my e-mail (the one requirement for downloading) and can e-mail me promotional material. Most of all, I’m happy, he’s happy and has spread his art. Isn’t that what art is about? Not money?
Now, after all that heavy, thinky stuff – enjoy the wonders of the internet. Please bear in mind that it uses copyrighted images from Lord Of The Rings by New Line Cinema, WingNut films and the Saul Zaentz Company. But the internet uses it to bring us joy.