I wanted to look at why we have digital piracy, by which I mean the downloading of hooky copies of films, songs and software, and the illegal streaming of TV programmes and sports events. Basically I’m talking about any digital media one attempts to get for nothing rather than pay for it.
Digital piracy is illegal and so it should be. If I don’t like the price of something I can choose not to buy it and that’s the limit of my consumer powers. I have no right to simply steal digital media anymore than I have a right to steal a car because I think the forecourt price is too expensive.
I believe there is, however, mitigation. That’s not mitigation in the sense that it justifies the theft, which it doesn’t, but there’s mitigation nevertheless.
Let’s look at the sort of people who contribute to digital piracy. I believe there are three types of people responsible for this: the criminals, the misinformed and the media companies themselves.
There will always be criminals; people who want something for nothing no matter whether or not the something in question is fairly priced. It’s pointless to consider this group any further here because it’s not unique to digital piracy and it’s a larger problem for society in general.
As to the misinformed, I mean people who can’t seem to judge a fair price correctly. There is a perception amongst some people that everything on the internet should be free because that’s how things were in The Good Old Days. Software subscriptions upset these sorts of people because they paid £4.99 for their software back in 2006 and they expected to get free upgrades and technical support forever. Their idea of a sustainable software company is warped. The software company’s own idea of sustainability might have been warped too at the outset but if they want to grow, innovate, provide good support and be around for the long haul then things have to change. They either need to charge much more for the software as a one-off purchase or move to a subscription model.
Anyway, this sort of thing can drive people to software piracy. Such people are not in-your-face criminals, looming over you with a baseball bat and a balaclava, but their incorrect idea of a fair price can drive them to theft and it all seems so much more acceptable when what’s being stolen is just a bunch of electrons over an internet connection.
If we exclude the above group of people, most folk have a reasonable, almost instinctive idea about what constitutes a fair price. And this is where the media companies themselves screw things up: a lot of what they sell is simply not priced fairly.
This is less of an issue with software companies these days because there’s usually an alternative product by another maker that does a similar enough job, and if a company charges too much the users will just go elsewhere. This wasn’t always the case but it is now, mostly.
However, if we’re talking about a film, for example, we can’t go anywhere else. The film I want to watch is only distributed by one studio and I have to pay the price they set. Alas £10-£15 for a DVD or BluRay film is just too expensive for 90-120 minutes of entertainment you might be disappointed with at the end. I did a quick poll of a few of my friends and we all thought something around the £5 area is a fair price for a film. We don’t want it for free; we don’t even just want to pay £2.99 — our instinctive valuation of what’s fair was £5 and we had a consensus on that figure.
I have no idea whether it’s possible to produce and distribute a film for £5 a pop but I think that’s the sort of price the movie studios should be looking at. If it’s simply not possible to do then I don’t have the answers. But if the movie companies could distribute their films at a fair price, they’d significantly reduce piracy and would make at least some of the money back via the people who would then buy a legitimate copy of the film. Maybe they’d even make more money in the long run.
I want to bring Sky TV into the argument too. Football is our national sport here in England and most people want to see their own football team play each week. Fans will go and watch it live if they live close to the ground, but many don’t live close enough and they’d like to be able to watch their team on the telly instead. Sky has most of the football with BT being the second biggest subscriber service.
But get this for a disastrous state of affairs. You’ll be paying at least £50 a month to get Sky Sports and maybe another £10 a month to add in BT Sports and you still won’t be able to see your team play live every week. Part of the problem is the ludicrous state of affairs the football organisations have created, so it’s not entirely Sky’s fault. There was a theory back in the 90s that putting football live on telly would stop people bothering to go in person to the grounds. This theory has long since been disproved, yet it’s still the case that you can’t watch your own team on telly at 3PM on a Saturday (when most games kick off). What you get for your £50 or £60 a month from Sky and BT is the chance to watch your team live when they’re playing at times other than 3PM, and that may amount to 10 or 12 times a season (out of 38 matches) at the most.
That’s just too expensive for too poor a return and it’s no wonder many people seek out a hooky internet feed of live matches. Again, for what it is, it’s about double what most people would call a fair price.
If someone came up with a £20 a month service where I could just watch Newcastle play every week, I’d sign up in an instant. I’d still go to the ground when I’m up in the North East but I live over 300 miles away and I just can’t go every week.
I’m going to be clear here: the media companies’ extortionate prices are the main reason we have digital piracy. They have created an environment that encourages piracy. They just don’t play fair by people and it is within their power to significantly reduce piracy and gain a lot more genuine subscribers in the process, but they choose not to for some reason.
Whilst I condemn theft, digital or otherwise, I have little sympathy for the overcharging media companies.
The media companies need to take more responsibility for the environment they’ve created. It’s doubtful whether they will though because many of them — particularly the film studios — seem to be in the business of litigation as much as making films these days. Rather than address the core problem they’ve just opened up another revenue stream instead.