Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Piracy as a Form of Dissent?

I was reading a discussion forum today about Comcast sending cease and desist letters to broadband customers over copyrighted material. Seems the copyright holders like to cruise bit torrent and download material that appears to be theirs and then notify the owners of the I.P. addresses seeding the content.

The topic soon turned to morality. Some posters seemed to think there is a correlation to what is legal and what is moral. This started me thinking about all of the strife and protests in the Middle East these days. What the protesters are doing is illegal, but certainly rising up against a tyrant is not immoral.

I can not claim that "stealing" copyrighted works belongs in the annals of time along side those who've fought to overthrow a tyrannical government, but I do propose the idea that the RIAA and the MPAA are in the same ballpark as tyrants. After all, they can attack anyone they want, throwing huge sums of money at the courts and congress, and the target has little if no other recourse than to submit. They buy laws that help them with these attacks. They are a very powerful and legal source of tyranny against anyone who might oppose them.

I also read an article about the sunk cost fallacy and the success of Farmville. It seems that people play Farmville not because it's fun, but because they don't want to lose the investment they've put in so far. It's a never ending cycle of sunk cost. The more you play, the bigger your investment, the harder it is to lose that investment and walk away.

I assert that the RIAA and MPAA are also caught in the sunk cost fallacy. Especially with T.V. episodes and movies. By the time the movie is made and hit theaters, the creators of that content have been paid. The writers, actors, directors, producers, and anyone else on the creation side of the equation have been paid. The suits, lawyers and executives, now see the whole production as a cost they can not walk away from. When someone misses a T.V. episode and grabs it later from bit torrent to catch up, the creators have still gotten paid. But the suits are still worried about the sunk cost. They can't walk away. They think every single "stolen" piece of content as revenue that is lost. Perhaps it is, but it's sunk cost. You can't get it back. Like the gambling junkie at the blackjack table chasing his lost life savings with his mortgage trying to get it back. It's sunk cost. It's gone. Walk away.

I see two real threats to the RIAA and MPAA suits. First is the tremendous marketing and distributing potential of the Internet. That's the only reason they have a job. They can't create, so they leech off of the creators. Second is the possibility that some media mogul will finally do the math and figure out that quite possibly the lawyers cost more that the pirates steal, and piracy is just a cost of doing business, a sunk cost, and firing all the suits will actually save them money (I'll not sink low enough to say anything about media moguls doing math).

So, piracy as dissent? Perhaps not, but certainly not as cut and dried of a moral case that some posters made it out to be on the discussion forum I was reading. Especially considering recent studies that show 3rd world piracy is simply a case of economics and pirates in developing countries pirate because $24.99 for the Blue Ray Combo Pack of Shrek 4 is also a weeks wage and possibly a month's food. This seems to mean that the solution to piracy, at least in developing countries, is to lower the cost. Like day old bread, milk approaching it's expiration date, and going out of business sales getting something is better than getting nothing.

My dream, well one of my dreams, is that someday distribution options will be vast enough that EMI and Sony and the rest won't even be necessary anymore. Instead of them stuffing over-produced crap down our throats via the radio, artists will be able to reach us directly. Trent Reznor and Radiohead have already figured that out. They make less money and sell fewer records now that they've gone independent, but it seems the freedom and control of their art is worth it since they've not gone back begging on their knees. Hell, Trent is still giving away NIN's last full length record. Seems like artists know how to make money off of free music.