I was at a very interesting discussion on piracy last night at the ICA. Matt Mason, author of Pirate’s Dilemma, debated the effects of piracy in the modern world with Andrew Orlowski, executive editor of the Register. It started out as one of those evenings for me that had potential to live up to its expectations, and I was relieved that it jolly well did.
Questions/issues that were brought up during the discussion and by the audience include:
1. The fact that piracy in some cases has an undertone of civil disobedience and acts as a collectove force for positive change. People don’t like the monopoly imposed by record labels or production companies on their viewing habits, so by indulging in piracy, they often force the proprietors to make content legally available themselves. This happened with ABC’s Lost – after so many pirated versions of the series episodes were made available on the internet immediately after they were aired on TV, ABC realised they were fighting a losing battle and made it available on ABC.com instead.
2. The question of financial profitability (based on fair use) for small independent musicians stirred up considerable debate. Piracy means that they lose their source of income from legally selling their music or videos online, but one interesing thought that emerged – and one that I concur with – is that there are alternative sources of income for musicians these days, such as tickets from gigs or T-shirts etc. (the word ‘T-shirt’ was repeated by Matt many times and was the source of much amusement – he gave the example of a music group that makes their living from selling T-shirts of the band and thinks it is a viable business model for musicians!). If their music is good enough, to be honest, then as Mark and I were discussing after the talk, they should become popular by word of mouth, which would in turn fuel ticket sales etc. Trying to control piracy is not a smart business model for independent musicians because if they truly are good, as Radiohead are (and they make their music available online for free now), they’ll earn their income anyway. As Matt and Andrew also pointed out, collective licensing is another model that may work as long as it promotes market efficiency. If it becomes government-sanctioned licensing where the governments mandates payment of an X amount to listen to Y number of songs, then we may get industries who think along the lines of ‘let’s get the government to increase it to X+10’ and so on and we’ll be back to square one.
3. In response to a question I asked, the speakers both believed that legal ramifications of piracy will soon be limited. The days of prosecuting people for creating things like mashups of videos online and making them available on YouTube are almost over – Matt gave the example of Soulja Boy, whose music apparently spawned multiple Disney mashups, like a Spongebob Squarepants and an Alvin & the Chipmunks version. After a point, Disney realised that it wasn’t such a big deal, and they didn’t go after the ‘offenders’ with a lawbook. Personally, for non-mashup versions, when I try to find film videos (Indian film songs for example) on YouTube that have been taken down ‘due to copyright violations’, I’m getting to the point where I just feel they’re behaving like kids. I really think their time is soon going to be up.
4. The consumer group that listens to most popular music nowadays is the generation that is just growing up – and for them piracy is not going to make much of a difference because one of the biggest music touchpoints for them is ringtones – and that’s not really affected at all. Profit from ringtones will continue to be made, piracy or not.
5. Both speakers felt that the iTunes model is soon going to be pointless – that of requiring to pay each time to download music. I’ve mentioned my discomfort with iTunes before, and I’m glad to see that there are others who feel the same way. The business model of paying a fixed reasonable amount per month, on the other hand, was discussed as a much more sensible model, because if content is good, then people will see value and won’t mind paying – as long as it doesn’t make too big a dent in their pockets.
Other interesting questions that came up were how piracy has affected the porn industry, which has apparently halved over the last few years (it’s a moral issue – people would rather just watch pirated porn in the privacy of their homes than pay and watch it outside, which doesn’t make them look good), and the democratisation of big labels (earlier, record labels decided who became big stars, today it’s the people).