Busting Your Delusions About Content And Piracy

We’ve spent a lot of time this week looking at proposals for how ISPs should deal with allegations of piracy via torrents and how those would work in practice. There’s broad agreement that the proposals aren’t perfect and that a dedicated downloader could easily work around them, but there’s also clearly some widely-held misunderstandings about the nature of the proposals and the alternative business models which might drive entertainment in the future. Let’s bust through a few of them.

Picture by Kevin Dooley

Yet again, it’s worth pointing out that the proposals from five local ISPs are just that: proposals. There’s no agreement that such a scheme will happen, and it’s almost certain that it will need to be modified to get copyright holders to agree to it. However, many of the disputable points that have arisen in comments on Lifehacker, and in other discussions of the issue, would remain incorrect even if an entirely different scheme was adopted.

Myth #1: Piracy would stop if we had better streaming alternatives

The original issues paper argues that providing legal means of accessing media online — whether that’s pay-per-view movies, an all-you-can-eat subscription service, or permanent purchase of digital copies — is the most effective means of combatting piracy. Virtually everyone who has commented on the issue agrees with that, and I do too. But there’s an important caveat.

Firstly, while offering cheap and legal alternatives would certainly reduce piracy, it clearly wouldn’t eliminate it entirely. No matter how affordable you make a given service, if people believe that there’s a free alternative available, it will get used even if its legality is questionable. (And to be honest, the legality of torrenting movies or TV shows or full-release games isn’t questionable in most cases: copyright law is very clearly being broken.)

The affected industries could probably live with that outcome: after all, piracy was still an issue back when I first started buying music on cassette tapes. It’s always going to be with us. Pretending that every single torrent downloader would disappear if better alternatives were available is realms-of-fantasy material. The existence of a service like Hulu in the US hasn’t stopped people continuing to share shows that are available on that service.

Myth #2: $20 a month for everything ever made is a sustainable business

A related point is that some people appear to have an unrealistic expectation of what a legal service might consist of. The figure of $20 a month often gets bandied around, probably because that’s around what Spotify charges. But a little bit of thought suggests that a movie subscription service, in purely commercial terms, should cost more. After all, producing an episode of a TV show costs more money than producing a song, because more people are involved. (Yes, artists can spend ten years on a single album, and people can shoot video on their phones. But as a general principle, that ratio holds.)

If the production costs are higher, it’s not unreasonable to expect that the subscription might also be higher as well. In fact, a service like WatchNow from Quickflix costs less than that — $14.99 a month — but doesn’t promise to offer access to everything. For newer movie content, you’ll pay on a pay-per-view basis. Some people seem to find that objectionable. Many more find it objectionable when it comes to television. But it’s foolish to think that all TV is produced for free viewing and subsidised by ads. Some is produced by subscription-only channels. Much is government-funded. The “I can already skip the ads on my PVR” argument doesn’t apply here.

There’s a second important related point. No legal alternative offers everything anyway. iTunes — the poster child for successful legal alternatives — still has major gaps in Australian music coverage. Hulu does not offer everything recently shown on US television, even if you pay for the enhanced version.

Even if regional variations in stores disappeared (and that seems unlikely in the short-term), there will still be hold outs on a global level. AC/DC aren’t racing to sell their music digitally, for instance. The attitude “I can’t get everything I want, so I’m forced to torrent” thus becomes a self-perpetuating excuse. There’ll always be a gap. Many people appear to believe that unless they can watch a show the second it gets transmitted anywhere in the world, a commercial service isn’t good enough. I just can’t see how that becomes sustainable on a global basis, but it’s clearly far from a minority view.

Myth #3: Easy excuses will let you keep torrenting

We’ve identified a couple of obvious ways consumers could work around the proposed notices system, such as using proxies or by regularly resetting your IP address. Readers piped up with other suggestions, pointing out that you could argue against a notice by saying that multiple family members had access to the account, or that you had a completely open hotspot which anyone could use.

My issue with the last two strategies is that they’re not going to be an effective argument if you’ve received more than one notice. Sure, you could argue that you didn’t have a secured hotspot the first time a notice shows up. But if alleged infringements keep happening and you do nothing to change that situation, the game has changed, and you’re going to come across as either stupid or criminal. If there’s a clear process in place and you’ve been pointed towards appropriate educational resources, a court is more likely to assume that you’ve broken the law than that you’re an idiot. (Though it might well assume both.)

Ultimately, the notices system seems designed with the intention of ensuring that names and addresses of alleged offenders only get passed on to rights holders and into the courts when there’s clear, unambiguous evidence of ongoing infringement. There’s plenty of room for arguing about the details, but taking the Pollyanna view that your apparent ability to consume any kind of content you like constitutes an unalienable right to grab it however you can seems a really immature way to go about it.

Copyright law is messy and in need of reform. Many (probably most) people genuinely want to support artists and properties they enjoy. Technology is evolving far more rapidly than legal or commercial systems, and many content producers are greedy. Finding solutions that keep everyone happy is tricky, if not impossible. But let’s not muddy the waters further by deluding ourselves that our own behaviour is beyond reproach, or proposing ideas which don’t survive the first whiff of reality.

Lifehacker’s weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.


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