How much of a problem is online piracy really? Comic author Rob Reid doesn’t actually have an answer to that question. But his witty take on some of the dubious math surrounding the topic does make for an entertaining TED presentation. Reid’s point: many of the key numbers surrounding our understanding of piracy’s economic impact are exaggerated, and in some instances, they’re just absurd.
But fuzzy math doesn’t mean piracy isn’t a problem. As screenwriter John August points out, it would be a mistake for viewers to conclude that “illegal file-sharing is not that big of a deal.” Instead, August writes: “… that conclusion needs some italics: illegal file-sharing is not that big of a deal.”
Putting the math aside for a moment, the big deal seems to be that we have a sizable group of people who believe they should be able to access any intellectual property they want free of cost.
Information should be free, you often hear from commenters defending piracy. Maybe it should be free. Maybe ice cream and cookies should be free, too. But they aren’t free. And they never will be free because someone has to make the ice cream and cookies, and that person also has to pay their rent. Sure, you might get one or two free cookies out of them once in a while, but if you want cookies and ice cream to scale, you need monetary incentives that encourage some people to make cookies, others to make ice cream, and still others to work in boring, but high-paying office jobs so they can pay for ice cream and cookies.
If all that sounds a little ridiculous, it’s intended to be. So why am I being so cheeky? Because it’s absurd that we’ve reached a point where an industry has to explain that when customers turn to theft, there’s a problem. That’s not even Econ 101. Really, it’s something you probably should have figured out running a lemonade stand as a kid.
So why is media different? Why do some people believe it’s ok to steal content?
A few days ago, The Guardian published a great article from Lloyd Shepherd, a novelist who asked that very question of a person offering a bounty to anyone who could pirate his book. It’s a terrific read for anyone in the business of producing content. But don’t look to Shepherd for answers. Try though he does, Shepherd just can’t seem to get a good explanation for why some people think it’s ok to steal intellectual property (although he does examine some of the typical, if unsatisfying, explanations). If we were talking about just a handful of people, this wouldn’t be an issue. But apparently there are enough people who are willing to steal content to support a cottage industry of torrent sites. Similarly, there are enough pirates out there to make comments in defense of piracy commonplace across the Web.
Clearly, somewhere along the line, content creators lost the message war. They failed to adequately rebut the absurd notion that all intellectual property is free. But they also failed to explain their own business models. Yes, people do understand that movie studios make money off of ticket sales. People also seem to understand that TV networks make money by selling ads. And I suppose the general public understands that book sales are how authors are compensated. But digital media publishers have done a lousy job of explaining how they make their money.
I’ve been writing content for the Web (and getting paid!) since 2003. Back then, I wasn’t surprised when people asked how AskMen.com, one of the sites I first wrote for, made its money. The Internet was new, and while there were ads that were plainly visible on the site, people who didn’t work in digital could easily be forgiven for not being able to identify the business model. In those days, online advertising was a small industry without much in the way of awareness among the general population.
Times haven’t changed much.
So why are people so in the dark? Well, maybe it’s because online publishers haven’t turned on the lights. Since the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, online publishers have pushed this idea of free like it was the new gospel. But it never really was free. Someone was always paying the bills. And the problem we now face is that some people — maybe a lot of people — actually believe what online publishers have been telling them for more than a decade.
So how do we put the genie back in the bottle? Some people like the idea of suing the bastards. And there is certainly a lot of excitement around new models for content distribution. But maybe the best plan is to rethink the message. After all, media companies are good at messaging. Or at least they’re supposed to be.
Media companies need to do a better job of explaining what consumers pay for directly as well as when, and how, third parties like advertisers foot the bill for content. They should also get their math right. But really math is besides the point. This is a messaging battle, and great messaging is about striking an emotional connection with an idea, not running out dubious statistics. When I was in college it was cool to steal music. But today it’s cool to buy music on iTunes. Or, listen to ad-supported music on Spotify. Or, pay Spotify for a few value-added features. Our problem with piracy is that right now, for too many people, it’s just way cooler to steal it.