It sucks to see your stuff stolen. Whether it’s online or from your own house, seeing someone take something from you, perhaps valuable, with a second thought to the consequences, is dreadful. At some base level, one could look at the recent SOPA or PIPA legislation as the equivalent of punishing someone for stealing (or aiding someone to steal) from you, in much the same way cops jail people who steal your car or invade your home. Internet piracy is an entirely different animal, however: not only is the theft so incredibly easy, but the technological countermeasures go out of their way to harm legal purchasers as well. The fact is, media companies just need to stop fighting the change and embrace it for the better.
As a content producer, I want to get my stuff in people’s hands. I’ve made a documentary, and I’ve written a book. I know what it’s like to have content out there, available for people to grab (although the documentary’s on YouTube for free, anyway). I’ve never made a living off either, but being as both are in a format that can be transmitted over the internet easily, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a chance it will be stolen. I can be disappointed that it is, I can’t be angry about it. Why?
Because internet piracy is inevitable and I can’t do anything about it.
With simple transfer tools, piracy has deflated the value of entire industries. Where does that money go? It doesn’t take much effort to see that the industries’ reactions have been virtually negative. I mean, let’s look over it.
While bootlegs and leaked tracks have been around for decades of concerts and “lost” recording sessions, music was one of the first waves of content to be illegally transmitted through the internet. In the early 90s, the MP3 format was devised as a way to compress music to incredibly small sizes without sounding crunchy. The first files started going around the internet a few years later, but anyone who remembers downloading those files early on remembers how awful it was to crawl through lists and lists of raw files finding the songs you wanted, especially when even their incredibly small size still required 45 minutes to download (and when it was the wrong file, or a bad recording…).
This was when I was first introduced to internet piracy. Long before it was policed, I downloaded my first MP3 off someone’s web server in May 1999 (it was John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars: Episode I, by the way…) and it never felt wrong, it was sort of an amusing thing. The stuff was available, and I could download it, and other people could do it, so that made it fine. But had we stuck to finding links via IRC or by friends of friends before the big come down occurred, it wouldn’t have changed the scene much and the recording industry would’ve still produced tons of garbage pop music with lavish parties and so forth.
No, Napster happened. And all was great. the content was easier to find, but the RIAA got on the case relatively quickly (but only after specific artists found their content illegally on the service). Anyway, you know history: Napster was shut down and as a result, the theft was no longer an easily spotable oil slick on top of the water, it dove deep into decentralized networks that really ended up deflating the music industry and served as a foundation for other piracy. The RIAA, in their arrogance to protect their property, suffered the Streisand Effect, in which a bad situation was made much worse through mishandled intervention. Had they partnered with Napster (as some artists were planning to), they could’ve saved their industry. But they didn’t, because the RIAA couldn’t figure out how internet piracy worked. While iTunes eventually made music over the internet legit (it turned me, for one), it was already far too late.
The thing is, Napster expanded my mind to music in a huge way and if I had been stuck buying CDs, neither my musical taste nor my investment in the music industry would’ve advanced at all.
While music got easier to transmit with the spread of broadband access in the early aughts, the first movies started to work their way out at the same time. I missed Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo (starring a bleached Robin Williams as a nervous obsessive photo clerk) in theaters and I really wanted to see it. While I was in college, I downloaded the film (one of the few ones I ever did) via Limewire, one of the peer-to-peer spawns of the post-Napster era. I didn’t realize it until later, but it was actually an early cut of the film that I eventually preferred to the final version and I had to grab it in two parts at 145MB each, which was crunchy looking when I got it. The thing is: because I downloaded the film illegally and watched it, I snatched up the film on DVD the first day it was available.
While the MPAA wasn’t as interested in letting their industry disappear by cooperating with tech partners like iTunes, Zune, and Netflix, it still lobbied Congress to create SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, and more on a fundamental basis to fight piracy. Their solution? Destroy chunks of the internet that are found to be hosting or assisting pirated materials like cancer therapy, but the internet wasn’t very interested in that and the first few measures have failed, but the fight is going to be long and hard. The internet wants to protect itself in all of its various methods, which is hardly a fantastic idea when so much of our world is based on using it every day.
Wil Wheaton recently knocked the MPAA post-SOPA when he explained that more of his money had been stolen by them in their lavish over-production and bureaucracy than he had ever lost by piracy. Hollywood throws hundreds of millions of dollars at movies, actors, and productions, with little to show for it, which is how indie productions can usually get the same work done outside of Hollywood for half the price.
When I worked retail, it was a daily occurrence when a customer would brag about how it was ‘all good’ that their Xbox (original or 360, take your pick) had a hard drive full of tons of games. These are the true villains of content holders: the people who have absolutely no regard for your stuff and embrace the piracy outright. But these people are going to exist anyway. I never pirated many games because they rarely worked unless it was an outright copy of a disc, sans CD key (can’t do that these days!), but that’s also because it’s generally easier to buy PC games via Steam than it is to steal it. Console games are more difficult because of the hardware modification required, but piracy has almost washed away PC gaming entirely, hence the move of many formerly PC-exclusive developers to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
A few years ago, Titan Quest developer Iron Lore went under because they claim that piracy destroyed their sales while publishers like Paradox and Stardock have sworn off DRM on their games and have been successful despite not protecting their games. While others, like Electronic Arts with Spore, have put in nearly incriminating amounts of DRM (including a limitation on how many computers you can put the game on), they’ve stuck to their guns by avoiding DRM altogether and not punishing games for legally purchasing their games and getting robbed of their experience as a result.
The reality here is that the more people reach out to try and destroy internet piracy, the more it gets worse. It’s a rash that scratching only disturbs rather than fix. That our stuff is being stolen is inevitable doesn’t mean we tolerate it, it means we need to trust those who acquire it legally and realize the guys who are stealing it probably weren’t going to buy it anyway.
Or they’ll just buy it on DVD first day.