How to sell to a pirate
All I’m looking for in digital media is convenience and a fair price, in that order. Convenience means that I can get what I want, right now (bandwidth permitting), and play it on the device of my choice. A fair price is an amount that I’d consider loose change rather than something I need to budget for.
For example, a friend recently recommended an American TV series called True Blood. I downloaded the first episode to see what it was about, watched it, and loved it. I decided to buy the whole series. This, I think, is how it should work. I wasn’t about to put down the money for a whole series on spec, but the first episode was so enthralling that I wanted more. And I was quite happy to pay for it, as long as it wasn’t outrageously expensive. I do have a job, after all. I can pay. I just wanted to see more of it, and to see it soon.
I was quickly disappointed: True Blood hadn’t yet been released in the UK. (The first series will be come out on DVD at the end of October, after the second series finishes on US broadcast television.) Imported US editions are available, but they’re Region 1, and I don’t have a multi-region DVD player. (I think I could probably have got it to play on my computer, but I’ve never tried and I wasn’t sure. Not sure enough.)
At this point, I should probably tell you that I don’t really care about copyright. I don’t see it as a natural right (there’s a playground obviousness to the Civil Law concept of the moral right, for example) but as an artificial one of relatively recent vintage. However, that’s a discussion for another time. But what is important is that I want people to continue to make excellent works of art and entertainment for me to enjoy, for purely selfish reasons. Some of these things can’t be made without significant financial investment, so I do have an interest in the makers being remunerated.
- I wanted to obtain the first series of True Blood.
- I couldn’t buy a UK release on DVD.
- The US version was available as a grey import but I might not be able to play it because of region coding.
- Or I could download the entire series for free from a more buccaneering corner of the internet.
At any stage up until the last, you could have had me as a customer, if you were willing to supply it there and then in a format I could use. However, because of licensing, region coding, and DRM, my best option was the ‘pirate’ one.
So, speaking as someone who has no real opposition to downloading a copyright-infringing copy, here’s what I think you need to know:
- There is no point in putting restrictions on the sale of the legal copy, because your free competitor has the same product.
- When you region-code the product, you prevent me from buying it.
- When you don’t sell the product in my territory, you prevent me from buying it.
- When you put DRM on the product, you prevent me from using it on the device of my choice. I don’t want to be locked into buying Apple products forever, for example. And that prevents me from buying it.
- There’s no point in putting DRM or other restrictions on the product, because it’s already available. Give me commonly-accepted formats in a choice of bitrates. What’s the worst that can happen? I upload it to Usenet? It’s already there!
There are two ways that you can stop me from downloading it from unlawful sources. One is to cut off the supply. Good luck with that. It hasn’t worked so far, has it?
The other method is to make it easy, quick and cheap to get hold of the stuff I want to watch or listen to. Even though it’s free, pirating stuff is still a bit of a hassle. You could definitely beat them on convenience and speed of release.
You’ll have to change your licensing. If it’s on HBO today, I have to be able to watch it today. Not in several months’ time when it’s on Sky (as if I’d pay Murdoch a penny!). Not after that, when it comes out on DVD in the UK. Not when I’ve already seen spoilers because it’s old news to the US audience. We live in an interconnected world. Your old models of segmentation don’t work here.
You’ve got to be realistic on price, too: no one is going to pay £30,000 to fill up an iPod. A cinema ticket costs under £10, and that includes all the overheads of a physical business, so a downloaded movie must be quite a lot cheaper than that.
But if I could, say, download the final episode of Series 2 next week as soon as it’s broadcast, I’d pay £1 for that. Oh, and making the first episode free would be a fantastic loss leader.