Pirates vs. Big Corporations: You lose Either Way

 vs.  and 

*disclosure. I meant to post this yesterday but I was…well, it WAS 4/20 and my inner Ganjaness wanted to be satisfied, so…*

About 3000 years ago, a man named Moses came down from the slopes of Mount Sinai and held out two large stone tablets with ten commandments from the Torah (aka Old Testament). These Ten Commandments were the first-known Cliff Notes version of any significant text in recorded human history; taking a very long scroll and condensing it to about 66 words (depending on the exact translation you use). These Commandments are easy to understand and easy to see why they were picked.

*Only kidding above.

One of those ten is “You Shall not Steal.” The Merriam-Webster definition defines the verb “steal” as

to take (something that does not belong to you) in a way that is wrong or illegal

: to take (something that you are not supposed to have) without asking for permission

: to wrongly take and use (another person’s idea, words, etc.)

Today’s lesson is about piracy and whether we should support piracy or the major book/movie/record companies who want to force you to spend a lot on their products, all with DRM to prevent you from accessing your purchased content on a different device than the one you used to buy it. So if I download a song to my Amazon cloud music store onto my laptop, which I paid 99 cents for, they want to set it up so I can’t download Amazon’s mobile music store with that song unless I buy it again for 99 cents. If you share even one of their products with someone else without them paying for it, they get angry.

On the other side we have folks to don’t care much for those four simple words which make up the eight commandment, and who want to take whatever they can because they can and because they don’t want to pay for anything, so they entitle themselves to things from other people, and if you call them out for what they’re doing, which is stealing, they get angry.

The truth is, both sides here are wrong in their actions. Excessively high prices of goods encourage counterfeiting, piracy, and general theft, but these same actions also discourage some people from engaging in the production of goods in the first place, if their rights to their own labors are not respected or protected.

The U.S. Constitution recognized this problem, and defined in Article 1 section 8 Congress’  obligation “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”  Because this clause is the source of Congress’ power to enact legislation governing copyrights and patents, it is often referred to as the “patent and copyright clause.”

This thread popped up on Kboards and, given what we do, it’s important for us to understand high prices vs. piracy, and how to balance both. Take notes: Your actions might be the difference between success and failure.

First, let’s present the argument in favor of piracy: the so-called “Cartel” the entertainment industry has to stifle competition.

In order to maximize their already-enormous profits, the music, book, and movie industry enacted Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection on their produced works. The argument they claimed was to prevent people from violating “copyright protection” for published works. However, the end result has been to inconvenience, or even criminalize, legitimate behabior like making a backup copying of a cd, sharing a file with a friend, or transferring files from one device you own to another. Opponents of DRM say it’s realyl a way for big buisness to stifle competition, by making it illegal to make “unauthorized uses” of reasonable purchases. Think of DRM as a lock against piracy, and if the technology changes, the “lock” may not be able to be adjusted. But, you still can’t remove the DRM.

Then there’s the prices. $10-15 for a book, album, or movie ticket may not be expensive indidually, but how many of these products will you access at these prices? More than likely you limit yourself to select items because you can’t afford to take a $10-15 (or more- what’s the price for most big 5 hardcovers these days?) “test drive” to find out if you like the product. Yes, you could sample any of these online in advance, but you still cannot guarantee that you will like it and feel like you got your money’s worth. Plus, digital products should not be so expensive. Once an e-file is created, say an e-book, it has no cost besides the initial recovery cost of your investment- editing service, book cover design, maybe a file formatter, some advertising, etc. If technology changes you will probably have to re-format your e-book but otherwise you incur no additional costs because the file technically doesn’t exist as it’s not a physical product, so you don’t have storage or ink to pay for.

I believe a lot of the movement to pirate works began with frustration at high prices for downloads and the reality of of big corporations treating artists/authors and their fans poorly while focusing more on distributors (I will say this is more anecdotal, since polls go in and out about the satisfaction of authors/artists with their publisher/label). Especially since the superstars are all multimillionaires, will they really be losing out because a few hundred or even thousand people downloaded their product free or went to a service which allowed them to sample your work without compensation? It’s hard to say.

Hypothetical scenario: Let’s pick the book Insurgent  by Veronica Roth. I’m picking this one because I looked at movie listings this weekend and this was the first one based on a novel which I saw listed. Say the scenario is: you buy the book and love it so much you want to share it with your friends. The truth is, the book publisher would prefer your friends all buy their own separate copies. If you buy the movie on DVD and you and all your friends watch it in your room together, the movie producer won’t object to this but their far and away preference is for everyone to buy their own separate copies.

Suppose one of your friends doesn’t come when you watch the movie. You lend it out to her, she watches the movie on her laptop, and returns it to you. Have you and your friend engaged in the crime of consuming a media product for free?

By Big Media standards, yes. Your friend has technically watched a copyrighted movie without paying/compensating the copyright owner, so if they could find out you did it, they’d come after you. If you use a program like Handbrake for Mac (open source video transcorder) to upload the movie from a disc onto your Mac, the movie industry will tolerate it ONLY if you use it just for yourself. If you share this file, say with your parents, and they find out about it, expect them to come down hard on you. As proof, recall the cases of the music industry finding people who had made a handful of downloads off Napster and taking them to court.

But most of us would agree that this kind of sharing is not bad. Expecting every person to purchase their own copy of a movie, especially at $25 a pop (HOLY CRAP- $25 FOR A SINGLE DVD?! Better be plated in gold) is a lot, and it would be tough to prove that Ms. Roth or Lionsgate, which produced the movie, was really hurt because you lent it to a friend. In anything, I suspect Ms. Roth would be happy since if your friend never read her books or saw her movies until that point, they might be converted into fans, and it’s possible they might go buy the books or merchandise from whoever I assume sells her merch. For those of us who are indie, whether by choice or by necessity, knowing that people like your work so much they want to share it with their friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors is like a blessing in itself.


Second, let’s talk about reasons Piracy is bad: the fact that piracy is literally stealing

Let’s revisit that Merriam-Webster definition:

“to take (something that does not belong to you) in a way that is wrong or illegal

: to take (something that you are not supposed to have) without asking for permission

: to wrongly take and use (another person’s idea, words, etc.)”

“the unauthorized use of another’s production, invention, or conception especially in infringement of a copyright”

Piracy IS stealing, regardless of the justification or excuse used for it. Just as it’s wrong to be customer unfriendly and force people to rebuy products they already bought, and criminalize minor peer-to-peer sharing, it’s also wrong to upload someone’s files without permission and then give it away to the world, or worse, sell it without permission and keep the money for yourself.

Some people may want to pay for something, and are put off by exhoribtant prices. Others just want to steal what they can and justify it by pretending that piracy somehow benefits the creator because in theory the pirate “might” buy another one of your books or some merch from you.

Some studies and economists try to argue that piracy doesn’t hurt anyone. Most reseachers will tell you it does. Let’s break down the arguments:

ARGUMENT #1: If a pirate steals from you, they have money to spend elsewhere. So don’t feel bad if the pirate steals from you, s/he might buy a fruit smoothie from McDonald’s and they’re happy.

RESPONSE: How does this help you? What about your editor? Your cover designer? Next, please

ARGUMENT #2: If people pirate your work, they might be tempted to become fans and pay for it later.

RESPONSE: And what percentage of piraters will do that? If they ripped it off in the first place, the odds of them suddenly paying for your work is ____%”

Here are two snippets from two different news articles about pirating:


  • Offer more digital-based releases that premiere before theatrical releases – What’s there to lose? Offer your movies on digital cable, smartphone or computer (in HD quality) a few days to a week before a theatrical premiere and already you’re cutting out one of the main incentives for pirating. And let’s be real: if your movie is good enough, people WILL shell out again for the “big-screen experience.” You may end up making more money than you would’ve. IfZombieland had been available on cable same day as in theaters, would a sequel be hanging in the balance? Maybe, but then again, maybe not…
  • Market the $mart way – If you’re taking full advantage of the digital market, what’s the need for huge billboards, three different trailers, TV spots, print ads, etc… If you’re selling a movie to the online/digital consumer then use the free promotion you get from blogs like Screen Rant (HINT!) – or maybe loop your trailers and spots on cable on demand menus ad nausem. Archive movie info in one place (on cable menus, websites), use fan reactions and early screening promotions to build an interactive rating/review system to let perusing viewers know what new movies are worth their time and money. Once the consumer adapts to the new digital model (i.e., learns where to go to find out about movies), you can spend less, more effectively, to reach them.
  • http://screenrant.com/movie-piracy-zombieland-video-on-demand-digital-download-solutions-kofi-35289/3/
  • The first business model that dissuades illegal file sharing is to make the downloading easy and cheap

Does Piracy Hurt Digital Content Sales? Yes

ARGUMENT: “I love pirates. I get money from them all the time,” said the best-selling author of Wool, Hugh Howey, who will be speaking later at the Digital Book World Conference + Expo on his success story. “They send me money thanking me because they loved my book. I sometimes go onto torrent sites and if I don’t see my book there I feel bad because it means I’m not in demand.”

RESPONSE: That’s like saying “You have a really nice-looking car. Don’t you feel great that people pick YOUR car, out of all the other car in the neighborhood, to break into and take things from? That proves that your car is considered beautiful by a lot of people. If people weren’t breaking into your  car, then that would mean it isn’t attractive and worth stealing from.”

Umm…someone BROKE INTO YOUR CAR AND STOLE STUFF. Which part of that did you not understand?

Disclosure: I have read Hugh’s blog, and Joe Konrath is another pro-pirater whom I generally agree with as well. They are both great indie author success stories and I agree with them on a lot. But not on this. I think they’re both totally wrong.

Some people argue that piracy has always been among us because it’s human nature. Therefore, we should not only tolerate it, but embrace it.

Murder is also a part of human nature. Some people want to kill, no matter how many laws there are against it. Just because laws don’t stop people from committing crimes like murder doesn’t mean we ought to tolerate and embrace murder.

CONCLUSION: So who’s right and who isn’t? Is it better to let big corporations control the sale and distribution, charging exhorbitant prices for the products and mistreating their artists/authors? Or is it better to let anyone who can steal or gain access to your work do so, because they might hack into your website and/or they might become paying customers down the road?

Here’s the answer: neither side is right. Both sides have good arguments. But the truth is in those “blurred lines” (speaking of copyright infringement…) should be up to you, and not someone else, to decide. For me personally, I think low-cost e-books and some freebies which lead to more purchases are the way to go. At the same time, protect your rights. If someone is stealing from you, be it books or merchandise, file a formal complain with the site hosting that content or, depending on the severity, with local police or the FBI. While you won’t stop 100% of it, especially overseas, you can do your part to help the rest of us reduce it. if you are an indie, you already cut out the expensive “middleman”. Now it’s time to look at the other side of things.

The bottom line is, there’s a difference between you offering your works for free download or distribution, where YOU control the time, place, and manner of distribution, and where YOU can still get something for it, such as e-mail addresses and merchandise sales. In fact, you may even offer an e-book with a merch purchase or vice-versa. But that’s YOUR right, not someone else’s.


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