Legislation Won't Stop Online Piracy

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The SOPA and PIPA bills were born out of the entertainment industry’s attempts to hold onto their broken business model. The legislation that they lobbied to have put in place was grossly disproportionate, badly written and widely criticised, but fundamentally, it shows an ignorance of why people choose to pirate and what trying to stop it would do to the online ecosystem.

People pirate software, films and music because they are not offered a better service by the copyright owners. Now obviously the fact that pirate copys are free is a big incentive, and one that the entertainment industry can’t compete on, but there are many other key factors that make illegally downloading a more attractive option. The entertainment industry has not responded, or at least responded very slowly to the changing desires of consumers and is surprised when others encroach upon their territory to satisfy that need.

Pirating is far more convenient than buying media. On the internet there is no such thing as out of stock, for a library of nearly every TV show, film or album ever released. It takes less than an hour to download a DVD quality film, and you don’t need to leave the house so an evening’s entertainment can be arranged on the fly. You don’t need to watch unskippable adverts or annoying public service announcements about not pirating. A digital copy wont degrade over time or get lost like a CDs or DVDs. You don’t need to rigidly follow the TV schedule so can arrange your free time to fall when you actually have free time. You can even get around the ridiculous region locking on DVDs and watch foreign shows immediately after they’re broadcast.

Services like iPlayer and 4OD have made great strides in the last few years but are still inadequate. iPlayer has an inexplicably small proportion of its back catalogue online. I don’t see why I should only be able to watch Question Time’s from one week in the past, as if it wasn’t important to be able to flag up politicians on their ridiculous assertions after their policies blow up in their faces. The problem for 4OD is the adverts, its exactly the reason I don’t watch televison. I’d rather pay a few quid to not have the continuity of whatever I’m watching broken halfway through.

There has been some progress by the entertainment industry towards the wildly successful pirate model, but their fear of the internet has kept them permanently on the back foot. Services like iTunes and Spotify have proven that people are willing to pay for their media, if they are given the option. They may not be perfect for either the consumer or the producer, but at least they are a step in the right direction. The ultimate goal is

Playing legal whack a mole against whatever new threat to the entertainment industry arises is counterproductive, it’s simple economics. The owners of Megaupload may have just been arrested, but the demand that allowed them to become so successful hasn’t been dented a bit. I’m sure that many budding young internet entrepreneurs are looking at the reports of the $175 million that Megaupload generated and thinking that they can work out a more sophisticated system to deliver media. Its the same reason busing a huge criminal gang won’t end the influx of drugs into the country. People want drugs just like they want films or music, and someone will always pop up to give them what they want.

The reason filesharing is so easy is because that’s exactly the way the internet was designed, copyright law was never designed to cope with it. “Copyright law valorizes copying as a rare and noteworthy event. On the Internet, copying is automatic, massive, instantaneous, free, and constant” Technically even if you’re streaming something on iPlayer your computer is making a legally dubious copy as it downloads to your computer and plays from home, streams just make sure to try and delete whatever you’ve downloaded after you’re done. It’s not hard to tweak your computer to simply capture that download and get a copy all of your own.

People will always find a way to tear down whatever firewall the legislators put in place, there’s too much incentive for it. The only way for companies to make sure we’re acting within the law is to engage in the kind of Orwellian surveillance that would be the most destructive to free society.

The fact is that most people who download for free are those who’ve already spent all the money they can dedicate to entertainment. If they couldn’t pirate it then they’d most likely never buy it, and consequently never tell their friends about it, never chat about it online, never get tickets to the live show or buy the merchandise. Low levels of piracy can actually be beneficial, and not all downloads equate to a lost sale.

The entertainment industry is lucky. The last decade or so of pirating has created a generation of the most highly refined, diversity seeking consumers in history. If they can capitalise on that then their financial troubles will melt away. Instead of using the blunt tools of law to force people to buy their products the industry should be using their creativity and business sense to make sure they are selling something people want to buy.

Picture by Jer Thorp on CreativeCommons.org

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