Just because 70 percent of your peers do it, does that make it right?
That figure refers to the number of people between 18 to 29 who have engaged in copyright piracy, according to The American Assembly at Co!umbia University. Forty-six percent of all Americans knowingly have engaged in such activity.
Two major forms of copyright piracy exist. The first, and you’ll be excused for not knowing this, is copying a commercial CD or DVD onto your computer. That’s right. When you bought that music album or movie you own only the physical disc it’s recorded on, not the content it contains. You merely bought a license to listen to it or watch it.
This is illogical and counter-intuitive to those who grew up buying vinyl record albums and copying them onto portable cassette players, but new laws have granted content owners the right to dictate how their music or video can be listened to or viewed. This makes as much sense as selling someone a car with the proviso that only the buyer can drive it.
The impetus for these new laws is that today’s technology allows for perfect digital copies, with no loss of quality, which leads to what the media moguls are really frightened and enraged by: the illegal redistribution of said copies through illegal, peer-to-peer file trading networks such as Bit Torrent, the second form of Internet piracy.
With the advent of pioneer file sharing site Napster in 1999 (since successfully shut down by legal action taken by the music industry) music sales have dropped 53 percent, from $14.6 billion to $7 billion in 2013, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Faster Internet speeds and new file sharing sites have not only increased the traffic in pirated copies of music, but also films, books, computer games and software. In short, if it can be copied, it is being shared.
The trade associations representing the various media industries say that not only are the artists being hurt by rampant piracy, but that thousands of technicians, screenwriters, songwriters, editors, make-up artists, cameramen and others are also being hurt, to the tune of 750,000 lost jobs in the past decade alone.
Now I wouldn’t argue with the declaration that laws are being broken, but rather that they are, like the Grand Experiment of Prohibition, unenforceable, and that free sharing of copyrighted materials is such a widespread cultural practice that rather than trying to change such behavior, the industries should look for new models of sales and distribution to make it easier to buy than to steal.
(I don’t really trust the methods the entertainment industries have used to arrive at estimates of revenue lost to peer-to-peer, or p2p, services. How do they calculate profits they assert they would have made if everyone behaved and played according to their rules? Plus, these are the same guys who tried to get VCRs declared illegal, arguing that people would illegally copy movies and shows off TV. Of course videocassette and, later, DVD sales of movies provided a revenue river of profit, making even box office duds highly profitable for years after theatrical release.)
And I don’t see whose business, besides my own, it is how I choose to listen to my CDs, whether on the disc or ripped to my computer and copied to my MP3 player, as long as I don’t burn new copies on blank CDs and set up a stall in the market and resell them.
Same goes for my DVDs. This is relatively uncommon in the US, but is a major industry in China and all over the Far East and Latin America.
Change your model
The laws are unenforceable, and that the entertainment industry needs to change. The industry needs to realize most music downloaders are simply looking for new music. If they like a few songs, chances are that they will purchase the CDs.
Compete on ease of use
Illegal downloading is being replaced by cheap monthly subscription streaming services such as Spotify and Rhapsody, while movie streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu (for TV shows) are doing the same for video. Netflix claims that when and where it starts up service in a previously unserved region or country, piracy rates go down.
Amazon has added a new subscription reading service — all the books you can read for a low monthly fee. Copycat sites for books are soon to follow.
This model seems to work. In Norway, illegal music downloads are down a whopping 82.5 percent from 1.2 billion songs illegally downloaded in 2008, to 210 million in 2013. Pirated TV shows and movies showed a similar decline, from 130 million to 60 million last year.
Pirating, or rather illegal downloading, is tricky, messy, dangerous if you’re caught, and carries a not insignificant risk of infecting your computer with malware. And the quality of the copies is often low, files are mislabeled, and the whole business requires a bit of technical knowledge about file handling and conversion.
But this is not the sole problem. Dozens of sites, often ad supported, offer free copyrighted movies and TV shows streamed from the web. And no, I’m not going to give you the names of these sites. Just ask any 15-year-old to show you some. And as soon as one site closes down, two new ones sprout up like hydra heads to take its place.
The way to deal with these sites is to pursue the advertisers for aiding and abetting, rather than focusing solely on their owners and operators.
Unlike the widely violated Volstead Act, copyright laws cannot simply be repealed. They are, when properly applied, necessary and fair. Nor can they be enforced with the vigor and ruthlessness necessary to eliminate piracy altogether, yet anything less would be grotesquely unfair to the poor slobs that the enforcers manage to snare.
Off with their heads
It would require the modern day re-instatement of the Reign of Terror to bring about full compliance, and this is the tack the industry is taking. Fines for possession of pirated material run as high as $5,000 per song. Law enforcement officials have caught youths with hundreds of pirated songs, and the industry enforcers, with court sanctioned authority, settled for the amount of money in the children’s college funds or savings accounts.
Consumer groups, open source software alliances, and the free software movement have been outraged over the Draconian penalties for copyright violators, and the blatant unfairness of its enforcement policy of “setting examples,” rather than seeking to remedy the problem through solutions employing creative marketing alternatives.
Entertainment content providers should seek marketplace solutions, and come to terms that free copyrighted material floating will always be floating around the internet, and be prepared to write it off. Streaming services, lower prices on purchases and rentals of digital content, and value-added services such as specialty “boutiques” catering to niche markets are just a few ways the industry can compete.
The entertainment industry can’t eliminate piracy, but they can offer a service, which is higher in quality, more available and reasonably priced. Instead of treating the 70 percent of us as criminals, see us as a huge market waiting to be tapped, who have already shown a keen interest in their product, and then compete on service, reliability, fair prices and ease of use.
Who knows? It might even work.
Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology.