Not a Moment to Spare

I was watching part of 60 Minutes the other evening. Not because it’s a show I usually watch (I’m a good 20 years younger than its target demographic, and 147 years younger than Andy Rooney looks.), but because I was trying to figure out how long Sunday football had delayed the start of The Amazing Race. However, I left it on in the background, and then got hooked on a story they did about movie piracy.

I started out a bit slack jawed, but eventually started muttering and then yelling counterpoints to the television. This was not investigative journalism, this was just a propaganda piece for the motion picture industry. I always had the impression of 60 minutes as the bellwether of journalistic integrity. They had the reputation (at least in my mind) of digging for the truth and asking the tough questions. But this was a puff piece if ever there was one. Facts and speculations went unchallenged, and there was not even any appearance given to present the other side of the coin. It seems that out of 60 minutes, they could have devoted just a few to research and fact checking. TechDirt put together a post yesterday outlining the specific problems with the episode. I won’t attempt to recount them all here.

The bottom line is this is yet another example of corporate lobbying fighting to legislate the need or desires of an existing business model. Specifically, this is the same industry that claimed VCRs would destroy it. Now it’s claiming the Internet and file sharing will destroy it. This time for sure. This despite being a consistently profitable industry. All the while, failing to recognize that making it harder for people to access your content is not helping your customers, it’s driving them away.

Much of the industry clamor is based on the false notion that every bootlegged copy of a movie, song, book, or software application is a lost sale. There is no evidence to support that. People who truly want something will pay for it. It some cases, pirated copies are used by people as a try-before-you-buy option. If they like it, they’ll go see it on the big screen, buy the album, or purchase a license anyway. Other people “steal” content because the pirated versions are easier to use. After each of the last two Christmases I’ve spent time either cracking DVD encryption or downloading pre-pirated versions of DVDs we had legitimately purchased because the anti-piracy protections were incompatible with certain DVD players and made the purchased discs unwatchable. Did I really steal anything? Certainly not, but by MPAA standards, I’m a pirate. (Arrrr) And not a happy one because I had to spend time and effort to do something that should have worked out of the box.

The number of people who “steal” content they would have otherwise been willing to purchase is small. The larger chunk is people who listen, watch, read, or use content for free to which they otherwise would have never been exposed. If even some small portion of them become future customers, it’s a net gain. In fact, multiple studies have shown that file sharers tend to spend more overall on content than others. They may not pay for every song or movie they download, but they still pump more than their share of money overall into the industry. This is a different business model. But it doesn’t make it a bad one. Certainly not one to be outlawed.

We need to stop giving serious pause to industries who would prefer to legislate their existing business models rather than adapt to progress and change. Capitalism is about competing. The reality of our digital world is that free is one of the things you have to compete against. (Google seems to do okay with a free business model.) Capitalism does not insure that any one business gets to survive. It is somewhat unemotionally Darwinistic in that regard. Only the fittest survive. Those that do not evolve are recycled into the future. In a similar way, the government does not exist to foster the existence of any one business, but rather the growth and prosperity of business as a whole. Innovate, overcome, improve, adapt… or be eaten.

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