Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Worried about Internet piracy? Make it easy for consumers to do the right thing

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about online piracy in this space, reminding people about legal alternatives that are easy to find, easy to use and in many cases, free.

Half a dozen people posted pro-piracy comments on my article assuring me that piracy is not only easy and fun, it can whiten your teeth and freshen your breath while you download.

The value of pirated media varies according to your level of technical skill and your tolerance for risk, but I stand by my contention that for the average person, pirated media is more “expensive” than legal media, if you consider the cost of convenience and time.

The cost of piracy weighed heavily on my mind last week, when News Corp announced the termination of entertainment blogger Roger Friedman. Friedman reviewed a pirated pre-release copy of “Wolverine.”

Studio execs said, “This behavior is reprehensible and we condemn this act categorically — whether the review is good or bad.”

I can’t imagine why anyone would want to watch a print of “Wolverine” with no special effects. Sounds like trying to eat a Chee-To before they put the cheese on it.

But the April 5 report from Variety says Fox stands to lose millions from the premature release as X-Men fans scratch their “Wolverine” itch and decide that the film isn’t worth $12 bucks in a theater.

Legal consequences aside, piracy is a moral issue and a growing number of Internet libertarians argue that there’s nothing wrong with it. The Net is full of complex philosophical debates about the nature of theft and the limits of intellectual property.

Some folks argue that digital piracy does not count as theft because nothing is physically stolen. If I copy a movie that you bought, you still have the movie. I didn’t deprive you of your DVD when I made a copy so who is the true victim here?

It’s hard to summon sympathy for movie studios and organizations like the RIAA, but no matter how clever these arguments are, I can’t get past the notion that artists deserve to be paid for their work.

I’d like to see a world with fewer middlemen, where artists are paid directly by the people who consume their work, but you can’t get around the fact that distribution is a valuable service. Physical media costs money, trucks and fuel cost money, store displays and marketing efforts cost money and the Internet can’t replace it all.

Even Internet bandwidth costs money. Digital distribution may be many times cheaper than physical delivery, but it’s not free. A lot of people would agree that artists deserve to be compensated, but all these people in the middle deserve to be compensated, too.

The best thing about piracy is that it’s forced companies to provide legal download options that give customers what they want at a price they’re willing to pay.

Hulu is my favorite example. The networks may be 10 years late to the party, but they finally got it right. In fact, with my budget and my schedule, Hulu has become my primary platform for consuming television.

Current television programs made available on demand with limited advertising – it’s a winning formula, if the networks are smart enough to keep it. I find that Hulu advertising is more valuable and less intrusive than standard television commercials. The combination of short video spots and persistent banner ads keep the brand on your mind without overwhelming you.

And the archive of old shows lets networks monetize properties long after they’re taken off the air.

iTunes is another example. At the price point of .99 cents, Apple has made legal digital music better, faster and infinitely more convenient than the illegal alternatives.

So when my libertarian friends lecture me about the evils of copyright law, I find myself drifting back to this middle ground. Keep digital media simple, cheap and legal and the customers will come.

Leverage the power of the Internet to cut your distribution costs, pay for bandwidth with smart, useful advertising and make it easy for consumers to do the right thing.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

April 10, 2009 at 18:24

Posted in Columns

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