Anti-Buzz: Piracy

by Andrew Emmott on January 17, 2012

in Anti-Buzz,Future Tech,Internet

The Buzz: Piracy stifles creative talent.
The Anti-Buzz: No, obscurity stifles creative talent.
Why: The more you’re known, the more you’ll sell.

Dentists, you have it easy. As content producers your dentistry service is very hard to pirate.

Tomorrow – Wednesday, January 18th – might be an interesting day if these rumors are to be believed. For one, you won’t be able to read this Cory Doctorow article I am linking you to right now, you’ll have to read it today or Thursday.

UPDATE: This is the Google home page Jan 18, 2012. It is intended as a protest to the proposed SOPA and PIPA laws discussed in this article. (from the editor)

UPDATE 2: Related Article

UPDATE 3: SOPA blackout leads co-sponsors to defect

I try to avoid ham-fisted political opinion, and really try to avoid outright rants, but in January when I still look to the coming year it would be naive not to recognize that any discussion of tech trends has to consider the impact national governments have on our ability to innovate and communicate.

Social Media bubble? Cheaper tablets? Better voice recognition? You’ve never read a 2012 predictions article that predicts congress will break the Internet, have you? My father doesn’t shy from discussing the politics of health care, and so I will not shy from the politics of information technology.

Even so, the Doctorow article I just linked provides all the fiery argument I need. Go read Doctorow, then come back for my comments if you wish.

In a more cool-headed moment, I like to think that all of the panic is just that: panic. Which is not to say that I support SOPA, PIPA or any of our government’s other misguided attempts to regulate the unregulatable, but I sometimes think it too is just that: unregulatable. The cat is already out of the bag. Legislation such as this might have been devastating in 1996, when people still watched TV on their TV, and we relied on Seinfeld, not idle college students, to provide us with our communal sense of popular culture. However, if congress really does kill the Internet as we know it, I can’t imagine it will do so without backpedaling quickly.

I suppose a more violent, apocalyptic scenario is possible, but I’m more optimistic about the character of all actors involved. All in all, this is going to end about as well as Prohibition did; instead of playing Mafia on Facebook we’ll just be getting our Internet from the actual mafia.

(Editor’s note: The deeply flawed SOPA law that has caused much of this discussion has been dropped from the House agenda and is at least for now politically dead. Never the less the underlying issues are still active and important.)

The broader story that Doctorow describes – the war on general-purpose computing – is a very real one. I’ve batted around the topic of how innovation is counter-intuitive already; well, as Doctorow stresses, the impact of general-purpose computing is also counter-intuitive. With the general purpose computer, we’ve developed a technology that can, in fact, do anything, and it’s impact is hard to fathom. We’re only scratching the surface of what computing means for humanity, but still the common perception of computers are that they do the things that you use them for, not that they do anything. This mistake is what threatens computing most of all because it engenders the idea that computers are narrow tools that can be moderated.

Today, the battle is being fought over piracy. The intuitive understanding of piracy is that it siphons profits away from the artist. After these past weeks, you should probably expect that “intuitive understanding” is anti-buzz speak for “wrong.” The elephant in the corner is that there is no actual evidence that piracy damages an artist’s ability to profit. To a lot of people this sounds like crazy talk, (because, I admit, it is soooo unintuitive), but our friend Cory Doctorow has made all of his novels available for free here since the beginning of his career. He makes comparisons of himself to other authors who write similar novels of similar quality at similar times with similar reviews. The difference between him, the best-selling author, and the other guy is that his stuff is widely available.

When someone posts their home videos on you tube, accompanied by a Uriah Heep song, it violates copyright, but it also makes it more likely that one of their friends will discover that they like Uriah Heep, find other Uriah Heep songs online, and then purchase several albums. Or maybe they are lame and they only steal the songs. Maybe they play a bunch of Heep at their New Year’s party and one of their friends realize that, hey, they kind of like Uriah Heep … This is, of course, a hypothetical anecdote, but if you restructure your assumptions, it stops feeling so far fetched to consider that a relaxed attitude toward copyright protection is only going to increase the odds that somebody, somewhere is going to stumble upon your art and start paying you for it. The people in this chain of friends are people who would otherwise have been unexposed to Uriah Heep and never would have bought their music anyway. The argument is that those who are stealin’ when they shoulda been buyin’ are dwarfed by those who will buy it after they try it.

Exposure – it’s why there are free samples in grocery stores, product giveaways, giant sales, and music given away for free on the radio. Wanting to thwart large-scale piracy makes some degree of sense, but the vast majority of copyright violations these days aren’t organized crime rings, but just people being social and sharing and more or less giving free radio air time to the entertainment industry. Hollywood’s idea of copyright protection is an unfortunate catch-22 – they only want to give you access to their content if you pay for it, but you’re only going to pay for it if you’ve been exposed to it already. This is the old, inefficient, media-through-a-straw model of the 20th Century and Hollywood only clings to it because it is what they are used to. It seems hypocritical that the same people who want to “go viral” also want to lock up all their content in a box. They want you to give them money, but they don’t want you to have any fun with their product.

These aren’t my words, but: An artist’s greatest enemy isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.

However, I admit, that those of us who scoff at the worries of piracy often don’t suggest alternatives. Just let them get away with it? Maybe, in a legal sense, yeah. When you obsess over piracy, you kill that most coveted of marketing tools: word of mouth. So how do you combat piracy without throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Think of the medicine show: don’t settle for substitutes. Did iTunes stop people from sharing music online? Or did it just make legitimate purchases of music more convenient than stealing it? Convenience is piracy’s greatest enemy. Have you ever actually tried to steal a whole album ¬†of music from the Internet? It’s really annoying. The connection is unreliable and slow, you often get imperfect duplications, such as tracks where you hear the CD skipping, or lower resolution. You assemble an entire album and none of it is recorded at the same quality and one song is accidentally the live version. At this point, you’ll gladly pay money to, like the medicine show says, not settle for substitutes.

You beat piracy by being better than it. If your legitimate, for-profit operation can’t deliver your product better than the basement-dwelling pirate with no budget, you deserve to fail. Legitimate digital marketplaces have surged in the last few years. From books to games to movies to music to television to “apps”, you are, right now only a few seconds away from purchasing whatever entertainment you want, which is quite a bit better than piracy is ever going to do.

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