Online Piracy: A War of Attrition that Only Hurts Consumers

The past couple months have been filled with some unique experiences for me in terms of piracy. Historically, I have downloaded content. I think most of us have. But these strange events have nothing to do with pirating content. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. There have been multiple times where I have legally purchased an item, but due to “protection” features, have actually been denied my product. Today I am going to discuss one such occurrence and what it means to consumers.

In a round about way, this all started when I showed my mother the new Nexus 7 tablet. She saw a couple of the preview videos for the device and decided it was time to enter the tablet market. We knew that they were difficult to get, so we decided to order one from the local Gamestop. Within a week, the new tablet had arrived and my mother quickly fell into a world of touching and streaming. Life was good.

One of the caveats of this specific tablet is that it has no data service, so it requires a wifi connection for most tasks. In general, this isn’t a problem as she is typically using it where she has access to a network. Being a former Boy Scout leader, she felt it was a good idea to be prepared and wanted to get some content downloaded for offline viewing. My mother is a better person than me. I don’t believe she has ever stolen anything: digital or otherwise.

Being the upright person that she is, she took the high ground and decided to legally procure a movie for her tablet. She debated getting something through the Google Play store, but she is the type of person that still likes having a disc. With this in mind, the very obvious choice was the newly released Hunger Games movie. I talked her into reading the book, she saw the movie, and now it was out on Blu-Ray. When she saw that the box promoted a “digital copy,” she was sold. Happy to finally have some content for her new tablet, she returned home excited to get her digital copy… completely unaware of the quagmire that lie before her.

She soon found herself registering for one site… then another site… then getting errors messages that her account couldn’t be found. Then being told the accounts couldn’t link. After nearly an hour of trying, she breaks down and calls for my help. Being slightly more tech literate, I am able to cut through all the nonsense and have her setup in a few minutes. With a renewed sense of excitement, she prepared to download her movie, only to be informed that she can only stream the movie and won’t be able to actually download a copy to her tablet till next year. She was heartbroken. Being the wonderful son that I am, I promptly downloaded a copy that someone had ripped from a DVD off a torrent site for her. It was faster, easier, and actually worked. Worse yet, it likely has better picture or sound quality as well.

So the question has to be asked: why bother? It’s perfectly clear that the only people that piracy protection hurts are the people who actually purchase the content. Why go to the trouble to release your content in some archaic digital format that offers your customer nothing but restrictions and does nothing to curb piracy?

This also raises a better question: why aren’t these companies offering their customers a better digital experience. Being defensive gains you nothing in the digital world. Once something is out there, it will forever be out there. Embrace that there are people who want to consume your product and make it your goal to serve it to them in the manner they prefer.

A perfect example of this sort of self-defeating “logic” is when Fox broadcasting decided to change the availability of their shows on Hulu in 2011. At that point, a majority of their programming was available to watch on Hulu the day after it aired. In 2011, the channel decided to make certain shows unavailable to many viewers till eight days after airing. In the interest of seeing how this change would affect piracy, the website TorrentFreak decided to monitor the download numbers for some of the shows in question. The results were interesting to say the least. The episodes that received the delay saw up to triple the downloads when compared to previous episodes that were available sooner, with many users even commenting that they resorted to piracy rather than wait. The result means that rather than collecting internet ad revenue for having viewers, Fox actually drove their viewers to bypass them completely.

Now some people might say “They should just wait.” You’re right. Ethically and legally, they should wait. But practically? What incentive are the viewers given? Why wait a week, when you can watch a show within minutes? Publishers need to accept that there will always be piracy, and change their tactics accordingly. Treat online piracy as a symptom rather than a disease.

I recently had a short exchange with illustrator Ray Frenden on twitter. It began as he was hunting for examples of comic publishers that provided subscription models that include the use of .cbr and .cbz. These file formats are very popular among comic readers as they are typically small in size, allow for high quality pages, and are ultra flexible. We agree, along with many other comic fans, that these formats are a far superior experience when compared to more commercially used .pdf which can have scaling, navigation, and file size issues. So why do publishers continue to shun .cbr/cbz? Because they don’t have Digital Rights Management, or DRM. Or more simply, because they can’t control how, where, or when you access their product.

Now I think most people don’t believe they control this access with malicious intent. Quite frankly, publishers do it because they’re afraid that people will steal the content. Unfortunately, their content is typically illegally available to thousands, if not millions, of users on the internet in these more popular formats within twenty-four hours of their physical release. Why aren’t companies embracing this? Sure people will still illegally download their comics, but why not try to control what distribution they can? The steps they are taking have literally zero effect on piracy.

It seems that we’re doomed to suffer this cycle repeatedly. Whether it’s VHS, .mp3, bittorrent, or some yet undiscovered threat, publishers of entertainment will always fear what they can’t control and eventually only end up hurting their business by attacking the very people that support them. Distributors, it’s time to change how you deal with the internet, because what you’re doing doesn’t work.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

2 Comments

  1. Posted September 1, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink | Reply

    At least in the world of gaming, one company does seem to understand the way piracy works and how a war against it is pointless. Valve’s business model for Steam has always been to compete with piracy by giving good service, rather than fight it with bad.

    It was nice to see a lot of ebook publishers embrace similar ideas when they dropped their various forms of DRM so that people could read their books over different brands of ereaders, rather than shoving them into a corner where if you want to read something released by one company on another’s platform, piracy’s the only answer.

    Sadly, I doubt the movie and music industry will ever see the light in this. It’s already been shown repeatedly that the so-called “losses” that they’ve suffered are on their projected gains, no real losses have been recorded. And the only market that has really dragged behind in growth since the internet has been the music industry, which unfortunately pulls the strings of most of the movie industry too.

    Plus there’s the problem of international copyright. If I want to see Legend of Korra over here in the Netherlands, I’ll have to wait at least half a year. And trust me, half a year is fast for us, we still don’t even have Breaking Bad. When Korra does come here, it’ll likely be a bit more censored, a bit further dumbed down for younger audiences, and dubbed. The only way to watch Korra in the intended form for me would be pirating. When we got Dexter, the episodes were censored to take out most of the blood, and cut in half. In a country that isn’t fully covered by online distribution of TV shows, piracy becomes an aid to get what you legally cannot.

    And it shouldn’t be that way. But apparently looking for more ways to actually allow people to give you their money for what they want isn’t good enough. It’s a real shame.

    • Carl WatkinsNo Gravatar
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I agree about Valve and Steam. The only time I have ever had any real issue with DRM on Steam is when a publisher requires another layer of their own copy protection (I’m looking at you Ubisoft.) I plan on writing some stuff about PC gaming and I’m sure Valve will be mentioned quite frequently.

      That sucks about importing entertainment. I understand to a much lesser extent. There have been many shows that I’ve wanted to watch or get an un-Americanized version of, only having to eventually resort of piracy. It’s gotten much better in the USA for that though. Services like Hulu and Netflix have done a decent job at bringing us TV shows from England. Other countries… not so much.

      For example, years ago I wanted to watch Spaced. I couldn’t find it in a format that I could watch, and didn’t want to spend the money to buy a region-free DVD player and import it. I turned to torrenting. I eventually bought it once it was released in the States, but that was years after I had first watched it.

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