PIRACY AND MEDIA: Let’s Take It Personally

The issue of piracy in media is overwhelming, with practically everyone lining up on each side of the argument. Some say that piracy is destroying the industry, while others are saying that it’s not having nearly the effect it seems to. The thing is, there’s been plenty of top-down approaches to fixing the problem, many of them disastrous (like SOPA/PIPA and DRM).

I’m not saying top-down approaches are doomed. What I am saying is that us individuals, whether artists/creators or not, have more power than deciding which top-down approach we support or villify. We can make a difference individually, one person at a time. Some by buying as much media as we can. However, not all of us have that much in the way of discretionary income, so there’s only so much we can do to expand our support with our own money.

But that isn’t the only option.

For example, I’ve been thinking about why pirates download media, particularly music, and how we as individuals can approach it differently than corporations…

Here’s something that is becoming obvious: Individual downloaders don’t have a clear enough reason to pay for what they are downloading.

Perhaps they feel entitled. Perhaps they don’t feel like worrying about how much money a millionaire celebrity earns off record sales. Perhaps it’s easier and less encumbered than officially downloading. Perhaps they don’t have much discretionary income. Perhaps they have no real fear of consequences.

In fact, Gabe Newell of Valve Corporation spoke about this issue with The Cambridge Student and said:

“There is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem. For example, if a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24 x 7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country 3 months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable. Most DRM solutions diminish the value of the product by either directly restricting a customers use or by creating uncertainty.

Our goal is to create greater service value than pirates, and this has been successful enough for us that piracy is basically a non-issue for our company. For example, prior to entering the Russian market, we were told that Russia was a waste of time because everyone would pirate our products. Russia is now about to become our largest market in Europe.”

I have a theory about how we could at least begin to combat this way of thinking. One that doesn’t involve punishment, or restriction. A bottom-up solution, rather than a top-down one. An emotional appeal.

“In lieu of gifts, please support this band/author/director/artist that I admire by purchasing their product for yourself.”

I know from personal experience that there are plenty of media pirates who don’t pirate everything; they buy what they can afford, those artists who they feel emotionally connected to, those whom they’d feel bad not to support. In a year, they might download sixty albums for free, but they might spend the $200 they can afford to on those fifteen albums they truly love. So while they exit the year with seventy-five new albums, nobody’s really lost any money because the customer couldn’t have afforded the albums anyway; the only real injustice is that they have something they haven’t bought, haven’t earned. We’ve focused plenty on the sixty albums this hypothetical customer pirated, but what about those fifteen they parted with their hard-earned cash to buy?

It’s because there’s an emotional connection to them. Those albums have earned their respect enough that said listener has decided, I could not possibly pirate this! When you pirate something you have no connection to, there’s not nearly the amount of cognitive dissonance as in pirating something from someone you admire. It’s harder to justify emotionally.

So, let’s give pirates a reason to pay for them.

(Beyond the fact that they cost money. Clearly that isn’t enough, and I think reminding them of that only brings out a rebellious stubbornness for most, not a conversation.)

If someone, whether a pirate who found an album they love on a forum, or a customer who picked it up at a record store or iTunes, tells their friends on their birthday: “Instead of gifts, please support this artist.”, I think they would. Because the giving of a birthday gift is done with the intent to please and enrich the person’s life. If the person truly cares about supporting said artist, it will mean more than the Encyclopedia of Fart Jokes that their friend thought was a hilarious gift.

And recommending something to someone, and being able to share it with them, is a great feeling. It’s one reason why so many teenagers, myself included, accidentally became music pirates in order to run music blogs. There was this fantastic feeling of, yes, I’m giving people illegal copies of 1 song, but if even a fraction of them love it, they’ll buy the album. And they’ll love it.

If a pirate downloads three albums, and then three friends buy said albums for themselves for that pirate’s birthday… has a crime been committed? Has a dollar been lost? Can a pirate redeem themselves by replacing their own sale with another?

I think it’s an interesting idea. It clearly won’t work for everyone; it’s classist to assume everyone has friends who can afford to buy them gifts, and maybe naive to thing everyone develops the desire to support the art they care about. It also won’t stop piracy, obviously. But I think it can make a small dent, and it’s a way for pirates to continue their lifestyle while ensuring the artist gets paid – in fact, gets paid more, because a good number of these “proxy buyers” would themselves become fans. Piracy, instead of thievery, becomes grassroots promotion. And for every non-pirate who does this, that’s even better, because it means that the artist makes even more.

I don’t think this has the potential to be a big movement, and it would be controversial anyhow… but I think I want to try it myself. Because no matter what, no matter how weird and confusing and pirate-apologist some people will see it as… the only real effect is that more people will be supporting the artists I love. And the more people that do it, the more that goes back to the art. I like the idea of that.

This is something I’m thinking of trying, as a way to promote the creative industries and combat individual piracy. You should give it a try, too. Even if it’s not specifically this, but “Instead of gifts, give $10 to a Kickstarter project of your choice.”, or something similar. Do something, because it’s not just the corporations and governments that change things.

It’s us.


(Special thanks to Marius Masalar, Dexter Brown and Artem Pashkevich for their comments before the final draft went up. This sparked some great conversations for me even before it went public!)

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