Sunday, November 9, 2008

Internet Piracy and You

Copy/paste of the speech I have to give in about .. 21 minutes.

Position Speech: Piracy is Awesome

In an interview with – the web version of the business magazine Conde Nast Portfolio – Jim Griffin, a music industry veteran working with Warner Music said that it has become "purely voluntary to pay for music". With the rise of easily-replicated media, it's easy to see why – grabbing the new Bloc Party album is an easy affair, consisting of pointing your web browser to the correct site and waiting for thirty minutes. Given the ease with which consumers can illegally download not only music, but also movies, computer software and books, it's obvious that the producers of any sort of digital media need to employ new methods if they wish to remain in business and profitable.

Although it is currently illegal to download any sort of media in almost any capacity if you're not paying for it, consumers continue to do so. In an interview on, the IPI – the Institute for Policy Innovation, a group focused on monitoring and making recommendations for economic growth to businesses in the United States – claimed that "global music piracy robs the United States of $12.5 billion in economic output and more than 71,000 jobs annually." The only legal recourse at the moment for the recording industry is, at the moment, to sue people in civil courts, in varying quantities depending on what the RIAA – the Recording Industry of America – believes to be the financial damages that downloaders caused to the record company that owned the rights to the downloaded album. In 2003, the group took 261 file-swappers to court, according to Some of them were held liable for $150,000 in damages. Most accepted settlements, averaging from $2,000 per infraction to $12,000. Given that not just music, but piracy of all kinds has continued to grow in the five years since 2003, it is apparent that suing individuals and failing to adjust to the demands of a new, high-speed internet based market is simply not working for the producers of intellectual property.

The trouble with the statistic quoted above about $12.5 billion losses due to music piracy in 2007 is that it assumes that every instance of an illegally downloaded song, had it not been pirated, would have actually been paid for. Groups like the IPI and the RIAA are fond of citing the drop in CD sales that occurred during the early 2000's and late 1990's, arguing that the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing – the first major tool developed for illegally downloading music – was directly responsible for the decline in record sales. They fail entirely to acknowledge any number of other possible elements responsible for this, whether they're due to economic reasons, like people not having the money to buy five $20 albums each week, or reasons of taste, or any number of any things.

Their argument is symbolic of the systemic problem with the methods in which most of the media industry is employing to combat piracy; because it’s so easy to do and the chances of prosecution so rare, and the benefits of piracy greatly outweigh the benefits of purchasing items, consumers have little incentive to go about getting their music, movies and games in a legal manner.

In order for the music industry to return to profitability and to cut the losses incurred from illegal downloading, a series of measures must be taken. First and foremost, media must have a product that is better than what can be downloaded illegally, and there are a number of ways in which this can be done. DVDs can have online-exclusive content, accessible only by people that purchased the product in a store. Buying an album can guarantee rights to download it as long as the record company is in business, ensuring that the death of a computer hard drive or a scratch on a CD doesn't mean that you lose access to the album. Computer games have attained a modicum of success with this, granting people that purchased the game access to new, downloadable content and the ability to download digital copies of the game in the future.

Second, the producers of content must cease in the punishment of people that legitimately pay for said content. Since the inception of computer gaming, CD keys – a set of numbers and letters found typically in the instruction manual for a game – must be input before the game can be installed. The actual CD or DVD must also be in the computer, a so-called security feature that forces the consumer to buy a new disc if they lose their original copy or accidentally damage it. In the recently released PC game called Spore, users were initially allowed to install it three times – ever. That means that if you buy a new computer every two or three years, you wouldn’t be able to play it without buying another copy after a decade. When a consumer purchases an item, it should become his forever – forcing the people that legitimately pay for a product to combat those that would rather not pay is wrong-minded and counterproductive, as Spore quickly became one of the highest-downloaded games in history. Across the media spectrum, making personal backup copies of CDs, DVDs and games is not merely frowned upon, but a federal offense – even if it’s only for personal use! Not permitting consumers to have a backup copy of any form of media for personal use in the case of loss or damage to it is unnecessary, and permitting consumers to easily do this would greatly enhance the reason to actually pay for a product – instead of illegally downloading it.

Jim Griffin, working in tandem with Warner Music, has come up with a novel approach to the problem. Tack on a surcharge to an internet access bill, distribute the money made among record companies and media producers, and permit consumers to download all of the music they want. Although I don't believe that this is either a fair or ultimately effective path to take, I believe that they are taking the correct approach – it's innovative and it demonstrates that, at least to an extent, companies are beginning to accept the nature of the modern downloading internet. Disney, infamous for it's prosecution of infringements upon it's copyrighted image of Mickey Mouse, is also changing the way that it views the modern media world. As reported on, Disney co-chair Anne Sweeney acknowledged that "piracy is a business model," and that "it exists to serve a need in the market." They plan to place some of their television content on the internet in a high-quality format, and package it with advertising. Although pirating the show would remove the ads, it would likely be much lower quality and a larger hassle to do – this is exactly the sort of behavior that television companies need to universally adopt if they wish to continue seeing high revenue from their products. According to the Wall Street Journal, Twentieth Century Fox plans to combat the rampant piracy of their DVDs in Chinese streets by introducing high-quality copies of DVDs for as little as 2$; although this is more expensive than pirated copies, Fox believes that the dramatic increase in quality will persuade consumers to buy official products instead of pirated ones.

Although these solutions and acknowledgments are only the first of a series of changes necessary to curb piracy, they demonstrate that companies are willing to do what it takes – especially since the prosecution of downloaders simply isn't cutting down the quantity of downloads. The primary idea that companies need to understand is that the people paying for their product aren't the criminals, and shouldn't be treated as such – I believe that when consumers feel that not only are they getting a better product for paying, but are also being rewarded for doing so then we will see a dramatic drop in piracy rates. Until then, well – there's always

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