Eat less, exercise more.
This simple advice is, barring medical problems, at the heart of any weight loss plan for the 75 million self-identified dieters in the US.1 Yet the US weight loss market is valued at over $60 billion a year, filled with a constant stream of fad diets, “miracle” foods, and dubious supplements, as many search in vain for a magic bullet.
The same is true when dealing with expressive works like music, movies, and books. Many search in vain for a magic bullet to ensuring a vibrant creative ecosystem online, but more and more the key boils down to simple advice: Make piracy harder, make legal options easier.
Carnegie-Mellon economist Michael D. Smith describes this in a recent article on Digitopoly, Anti-piracy regulation and competing with free. The article is a response to an earlier op-ed piece by Nick Bilton at the New York Times, Internet Pirates Will Always Win. Smith took issue with the defeatist attitude that Bilton adopted concerning making piracy harder.
In short, Bilton’s arguments don’t mesh with reality. Smith points to his own research on price differentiation that ”found that while Amazon’s prices were well above the lowest price online, they still retained a dominant share of the market in head-to-head competition with much lower priced alternatives from online retailers like altbookstore, booksnow, and musicboulevard.” Smith goes on to explain:
What does this have to do with anti-piracy regulation? Possibly quite a lot if one views “competing with free” as simply a special case of price competition. Imagine competition in the digital media space where the media companies and their online distribution partners play the role of Amazon, and where pirate sites play the role of lower priced alternatives from the likes of altbookstore. The twist on this example is that while Amazon could only control the differentiation of their own offerings, media companies can use anti-piracy regulation to impact the differentiation of their pirate competitors’ offerings as well. Thus, media companies can use iTunes and Hulu to improve the convenience, quality, and reliability of their paid products, while also using anti-piracy regulation to reduce the convenience, quality, and reliability of the free pirate competition.
Smith points to empirical evidence that this is indeed what happens when anti-piracy regulations are adopted. Smith’s takeaway is that they “don’t have to be perfectly effective to get the job done. In that way, anti-piracy interventions may be less like ‘Whac-A-Mole,’ and more like horseshoes where you can score points just by getting sufficiently close to the target.”
But attitudes like Bilton’s persist.
One strand of thought seems to embrace the idea that antipiracy efforts are all or nothing. You have folks like angry sci-fi author Cory Doctorow pounding on the podium that efforts to make piracy harder are just the first step in a “war on general computing.”
You have Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge saying, with a straight face and clenched fist, “The only way to even try to limit file sharing is to introduce surveillance of everybody’s private communication. There is no way to separate private messages from copyrighted material without opening the messages and checking the contents. Gone is the postal secret, the right to communicate in private with your lawyer or your web-cam flirt, or your whistle-blower protection if you want to give a sensitive story to a journalist.”2
And a recent documentary from al-Jazeera claims that debates over copyright are “about centralized control versus ‘the ability to share information across the world without traditional boundries or regulations’” and recent legislation was ”not about pirated entertainment but how do we live in the digital age and who gets to decide what we do.”
This line of thinking is, to put it bluntly, insane. It would be like saying the only way to stop tax fraud would be to allow government access to everybody’s bank accounts, or the only way to prevent speeding would be to require that speedometers broadcast data to the feds. No one seriously contemplates these solutions, and we somehow manage to enforce these laws without 100% compliance. The same is true with copyright.
On the flip side, legal options need to be more easier. Here, the failure of creators to adopt legal alternatives has been overstated.
Just yesterday, the MPAA noted “there are more legitimate avenues available today to watch movies and TV shows online than ever before: Hulu, HBO Go, Vudu, Crackle, UltraViolet, Epix, MUBI, Netflix, Amazon – and that just scratches the surface.” The RIAA reported in its recent IPEC comment that there are currently over 2,000 digital services offering access to consumers to over 20 million music recordings, a number that is growing. Countless other opportunities exist for emerging and indie musicians, authors, and filmmakers online. And the infrastructure continues to develop — for example, this past May, the RIAA, NMPA, and DiMA rolled out five new licenses that provide a “one-stop shop” for new online music distribution services.
Access to music, films, TV shows, books, and other works has never been easier or cheaper. Ever.
But, just like “eat more, exercise less”, “make piracy harder, make legal options easier” goes hand in hand; neither one is sufficient on its own. Legitimate options are better for the public in the long run, but they need a fair marketplace in order to thrive.
- See Caroline Scott-Thomas, Advice to Eat Less, Exercise More Still Trumps Diet Products for Weight Loss, Study Finds, April 16, 2012; Heidi Grant Halvorson, 5 Habits of Highly Successful Dieters, CNN, Mar. 19, 2012: “Eat less, exercise more. That’s the recipe for losing weight, and we all know it by heart”; Kristen Philipkoski, Stop Complicating a Simple Obesity Solution: Eat Less, Exercise More, Gizmodo, Mar. 8, 2012. [↩]
- This argument is quite common. New America Foundation’s James Losey wrote in Slate last year, “If the United States decides that copyright infringement must be stopped at any cost, the required censorship regime will depend on ever more invasive practices, such as monitoring users’ personal Web traffic.” [↩]