Back in January, I complained about the user experience of shiny disks and also the manner in which the TV and movie industries continue to be dicks. It wasn’t a particularly unique piece of writing, and yet it struck a nerve, rapidly becoming one of the most-read articles I’ve ever written for this blog.
Since then, we’ve seen Matt Gemmell write a piece called The Piracy Threshold, where he blames piracy on the “incredibly short-sighted, greedy and stupid” media industries, and The Oatmeal’s amusing take, I tried to watch Game of Thrones and this is what happened. Both articles summed up my earlier thoughts on the piracy debate:
If your studio isn’t making content legally available, affordably, and on a worldwide basis, shortly after broadcast, you’ve only yourselves to blame when people hit torrent websites and download it for free.
Note that this isn’t advocacy of piracy—it’s the reality of the market we find ourselves in, with industries desperate to cling to old business models. Some people, though, have a different take. Harry Marks, notably, has strongly reacted against people he terms ‘entitletards’. On the Oatmeal comic, he responded:
I tried to watch Game of Thrones and realized downloading it illegally was doing fuck-all to help the situation.
I tried to watch Game of Thrones and decided to wait two weeks until it came out on DVD because I don’t have the patience of a toddler.
He also responded to Gemmell’s piece with a retort that blames the users and not the studios for piracy, arguing that people are now too used to instant gratification, and that there are plenty of services you can use to access legal content. However, the majority of these remain US-only, and it’s perhaps easy for someone in that country to have a skewed viewpoint when it comes to the availability of legal media. Again, Marks and similar thinkers might consider anyone complaining about that whiners or ‘the entitled’, but the fact remains we now live in a connected world. If I can now chat to people all over the planet in an instant, it’s rather absurd that I can’t legally watch a US TV show—even a topical one—for many months (or longer) after its original broadcast date, by which point I’d probably know what happens in it anyway through spoilers being found accidentally. This, of course, helps no-one: I don’t get to watch the show, and the studio doesn’t get my money.
On Twitter, Marks, I and others also got into a row over another key argument in the current debate over piracy and rights: format shifting. Fair-use/fair-dealing laws vary by country, but it’s currently illegal in the UK to format-shift pretty much anything, including CDs to your computer (as MP3 or some other digital format). The law on this might soon change in the UK, providing a personal-use exception, but studios will almost certainly fight hard against such changes in any country; recently, for example, the MPAA attacked a proposal in the USA to provide a legal exception for DVD ripping, because the studios make a lot of money reselling content.
Part of the aforementioned Twitter discussion turned into one about constant rebuying. If you own a CD or DVD, should you rebuy that content digitally, or should it be legal to rip to digital for personal use? Some will argue, morally, they’ve already paid for the content, so why can’t they do what they want with it? Others will equate the same action to effectively grabbing a free digital copy when you merely already own a copy of something on vinyl or VHS. And yet what if the content you want access to simply isn’t available digitally? Should a favourite album or TV show remain out of reach, because the studios no longer care about it? In part, the solution in the future might be massive services along the lines of iTunes Match and Netflix, but there will always be gaps in the catalogues, even if you’re signed up to all of those available.
I’d also argue that the problem in any forced-rebuy model is that such notions have historically led to planned obsolescence and restrictions—a lack of flexibility in media specifically designed to keep having you buy the same material again and again. For the studios, this can be great, and it’s one of the things that caused the media sales spike during the shiny disc era. But for users, it always comes back to the same thing: the user experience is weaker than it should be. With shiny discs, there are all kinds of problems that I mentioned in my earlier piece; with digital, the main issues are ease-of-playback across owned devices (in this often not being possible) and availability, with studios semi-randomly pulling content from services and often ignoring any country that doesn’t happen to have a ‘U’, an ’S’ and an ‘A’ in its name.
Marks concludes his piece with the following:
I don’t care what your reason is. I don’t care that you don’t like how things are. Bottom line: there is no justification for piracy.
I happen to agree with the last bit of that. But I also happen to think there are reasons for piracy that can relatively easily be fixed by studios, if they have the will and the foresight. There is, of course, a chunk of the market forever lost—those that will never pay for anything. But as Apple and others have proved, it’s possible to ‘train’ people back into buying media, as shown with music; that industry was once thought doomed, but Apple rose to prominence through offering a strong user experience and making content readily available and affordable. And if any service is good enough, we’ve seen how technology creates a halo effect, with a small number of advocates having the potential to drive a disproportionate number of sales. I just hope the studios are listening, watching and reacting accordingly.
Update: Gary Marshall points to a piece talking about both sides of the argument by Andy Ihnatko. Within, he also mentions the sense of entitlement angle, and I should note that I see the Oatmeal comment more as a general statement about the industry rather than a scathing criticism of a specific show. Ihnatko does also say “If a distributor shows up […] with a product we want, we’ll buy it,” which is rather my point.