Digital piracy abounds. The record labels throw grandmothers in jail, USF cracks down on file sharing and lots of noise comes from the media, but who cares, right?
Here is the problem with digital piracy: money.
People who produce the works that many enjoy and steal need to eat, pay bills and keep a roof over their heads. When you grab a movie or song and the creators of that item go unpaid, they can’t afford those bills. They change jobs and you don’t get that follow-up album or movie sequel. In time, whole industries could melt down – unless they adapt.
Media outlets get little support from the consumer community. In 2000, Metallica killed Napster, leading to the creation of a new, crippled and underused Napster and an explosion of free competitors such as Bit Torrent. Heavy-handed moves like this can give downloaders a feeling of pride in fighting the power. Who didn’t illegally download some Metallica tracks after the band killed Napster, just to prove a point?
The media ask consumers to eliminate their consumption of pirated materials so they can focus on the deeper piracy threats of mass production outfits. Some tactics used to combat piracy – such as the recent targeting of college campuses – come off as oppressive and uneven.
Some lead to public relations nightmares, such as in 2004, when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) took a woman to court because her 13-year-old daughter may have illegally participated in file sharing. The suit was thrown out, but not before giving the RIAA a reputation in some circles akin to that of the KGB.
Because of piracy’s prevalence, the fight against it holds little prospect for success. Instead, the time has come for media industries to develop new streams of revenue – or bulk up old ones.
The music industry has been at the forefront of this battle. The record labels represented by the RIAA feel deeply threatened by advances in technology.
However, some bands have taken matters into their own hands. When Radiohead released its latest album, In Rainbows, the digital download price was set by the buyer. Bands make some money by licensing products, but ultimately a musical experience needs to be experienced in person. The bands that thrive in the future will be the ones that can put on consistently fantastic shows.
The movie industry fears piracy at least as much as the record labels do. Obviously, a bootleg copy will often contain serious flaws and be of poor quality, but you can’t beat the price.
Piracy also greatly affects DVD sales. Filmmakers have some options to overcome this. They can bundle items into their DVD sets, offer licensed products or include keys to unlock Internet bonus features.
The studios can also use sponsors. A powerful example of this practice can be seen in the 2007 Transformers movie. The product placement for General Motors hit some people over the head, but it is going to be a fact of life for the media of the future.
TV can use in-frame commercialization as well. The next time you watch a show and someone pours a drink, watch for the label. This kind of placement makes sense for advertisers because viewers will not TiVo past it and pirated copies only duplicate the advertisement.
Another option for the future is private funding. Star Trek fans have a reputation for extreme loyalty. When the last Star Trek series, Enterprise, was in its final season, fans raised more than $60,000 to support the show, ostensibly offering to pay for future seasons. A studio policy banned this kind of funding, so the money went to charity. However, future producers may go directly to the fans for support, in a model that might look very similar to that of public radio and television.
Fan-based donations could keep many shows on the air. The better the show and more rabid the fan base, the more financial support it could garner. Programs such as the sci-fi fan favorite Firefly would certainly have survived if fans could have played a greater role in supporting them.
Writers will likely have the hardest time in the new economy. Writing has no performance element and few licensing options. In text, product placements would probably feel awkward and pay little to the author. All a writer can do is hope for the best – and if that doesn’t work, they can write some killer screenplays.
The entertainment industry needs to re-examine its attack on piracy, and, ultimately, learn to adapt.
Jason Olivero is majoring in electrical engineering.