I was all set to write a blog about piracy, and attitudes towards it. It was going to be my prelude to actually watching the new TV show that everyone’s talking about – Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the long-running Zombie survival comicbook saga The Walking Dead. I had it all worked out – I would wait, I would watch it legitimately. I don’t have Sky, so instead I’d wait until it was on iTunes, and I’d buy the first episode that way, to give it a proper try.
Little did I know, of course…
There’s no need to fear the spoilers here. I’m not going to talk about The Walking Dead, simply because I haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen it because I haven’t bought it from iTunes yet, and that hasn’t happened for the simple reason that… it isn’t on there. One of the most talked about and anticipated shows of the year, and it isn’t on iTunes. You can’t legitimately buy it. You can if you’re in America. You can buy the HD version in the US iTunes store. But not in the UK. The first two episodes have screened here, but if you don’t have the FX channel, you’re simply not supposed to watch them.
I sometimes have to shake my head in wonder at the way some of the media is still jogging like an arthritic pensioner to try and catch up with the digital bandwagon. The whole e-books debate recently has gotten me thinking about piracy – especially, some of Paul Cornell’s very lucid and intelligent comments on the debate at his panel at this year’s NewCon. Now, I’m quoting from memory, so I apologise in advance if I get some of this mixed up – but one of the things he said is that how he was at a US Con recently, and various writers were naturally unhappy about the current state of piracy and downloading that’s going on, but that they weren’t prepared to be vocal about it. They’d say it in private, but they wouldn’t necessarily say it on a panel or in public, for fear of alienating people (or getting a Denial of Service attack on their website from an online group like 4chan). Cornell has been very outspoken about the subject (It’s understandable – he works in comics, an industry that’s suffering major damage from downloading and piracy), and him saying that did get me thinking about how endemic piracy has become.
Because, I’ll be honest, I’ve pirated LOTS. There are probably very few people in fandom or on the internet who haven’t at some point. The ability to download video, and the rapid increase in internet speeds, have had a gigantic effect on the way we view media, and the way we interact with media. I went through quite a few years of happy pirating – mainly downloading US TV in advance, getting to see shows sometimes just a day or so after they aired in the States, and also downloading ‘fansubs’ of Japanese anime (which was especially fascinating as there are so many shows that I’d never even heard of from Japan). It was exciting, it was enjoyable. I watched a lot of stuff I wouldn’t normally have watched. I watched a lot of stuff that was bad, and a lot that was good.
And then… I stopped. Weirdly enough, one of the things that stopped me – or at least, nudged me onto getting things legitimately, was Lost (the pilot episode back in 2004 was what opened the doors to TV downloading for me in the first place). From S5 onwards, I bought the episodes on iTunes – because I only had to wait a handful of days after the US broadcast (they appeared a few hours after the UK broadcast), and because I enjoyed Lost so much that, frankly, I wanted to pay for it. It didn’t feel fair to be watching a show that I was enjoying that much (one of the last remaining US shows recently that I’ve actively followed and sought out) in a way that wasn’t giving anything back or paying for my enjoyment. Because let’s face it – for every time you’ve said “Well, there are plenty of shows that I downloaded that I then went on and bought”, there’s a ton of other shows that you didn’t get around to buying. Or that you downloaded, and they weren’t particularly good. Well, I pulled myself to a halt, and the last time I Bittorrented anything was the Lost finale in May, and that was only because I had already paid for it (via a Season pass on iTunes), and I really, REALLY didn’t want to be spoiled. Other than that, I’ve been clean for over eighteen months. And I like it. I like watching an episode on iTunes and knowing I won’t get eccentric editing around the adverts, and that the file will be good, and that it won’t automatically end just before the end credits. I like knowing that I’ve bought something. It means something to me that I pay for the things I enjoy – and if I can’t afford it or don’t want to spend the money on it, then I don’t get to see it.
But The Walking Dead did get me thinking – because it’s a show that’s been very popular and very talked about amongst fandom. And of course, it’s been pirated. There were plenty of people on Twitter in the UK who were talking about how good it was swiftly after the US Premiere – and of course, there was just over a week between the US showing of the first episode and the UK broadcast. It’s accepted. It’s perfectly okay. There’s nothing wrong at all with it. And if I did say “YOU ARE ALL THIEVES!!!”, I’d be more likely to end up sounding like a maniac. Because, of course… it is illegal. It’s not only illegal, it’s disrespectful to the people who made the artistic work in the first place. There’s so much out there, in the piracy ‘cloud’ of data that rushes through the internet like a terribly confusing hurricane, and reaching out and grabbing some small part of it really isn’t hard at all. The worrying thing is that there are kids who’ve grown up in the last few years who are going to be convinced that downloading is just one of those things – that of COURSE you’re not supposed to actually pay anything. That the media is so loud, so non-stop, so prevailant, that it’s just there, that it’s a self-perpetuating machine. When it isn’t.
You can see it from the state of cinema nowadays, where interesting mid-budget films don’t really exist anymore – it’s blockbusters, b-movies and only a small smattering of anything else (which makes an intelligent, well-crafted movie like The Social Network feel shockingly welcome), and the big companies are embracing 3-D so insanely quickly simply because it’s one of the few elements of cinema which are difficult to reproduce at home. You can see it in comics, where any left-field titles that get published only have a small chance of surviving more than a few months, and only the titles with a long-running core readership are guaranteed to survive. You can see it in books, where the mid-list is being eroded by piracy, and the deep discounting of places like Amazon, to the extent that the future of publishing kind of scares me at times.
Piracy is wrong. It’d be great to live in a world where digital piracy doesn’t happen. But we don’t. And we’re not going to. Pandora’s Box has been opened- the technology isn’t going to go away. And chanting “You are THIEVES!!!|” at potential downloaders isn’t going to make them feel anything other than defensive. There’s an odd, prickly sense of entitlement that has come with our brave new digital world – because the technology is there to make something instantly commercially available (as with The Walking Dead), we’re both vexxed and offended when it isn’t – and many people use that as an excuse to download, that they just want it quickly and easily. There’s the DRM excuse, the ‘I just want to try it out” excuse, the “Well, DC aren’t doing all their comics as day-and-date digital releases yet, so frankly why *shouldn’t* I keep downloading?” excuse. I’ve used them. If you’ve downloaded, then you’ve probably used them too.
But at some point, you’ve got to move past the excitement, and the thrill of getting so much media so fast. At some point, you’ve got to realise that if someone marched into your house, expected you to do a gigantic amount of work, and then wandered off without paying you, you’d be mad as hell.
(As an aside – I’ve actually lived through a version of this – I once lost thousands of pounds in unpaid invoices thanks to a magazine going under, and they’d deliberately delayed paying the invoices until the point where they went bankrupt (and all my invoices basically went up in smoke). The most frustrating and angering part was the fact that almost everything I wrote got published – it was out there, it was doing its job of being a part of content in a magazine that was making them money (even if it wasn’t enough), but they weren’t interested in paying me for my services. So I lost the money, and since then, in my work in publishing, I have ended up a lot more careful about being wild and free on the digital frontier.)
Yes, DRM can sometimes be an incredibly frustrating thing. Yes, there are ways in which the modern media really doesn’t work well… but I know that when I eventually do get published as a novelist, the fact that some people will almost certainly pirate my book will, very likely, make me want to hunt them down and batter them with hammers. Novelists deserve to get paid. Trust me – I have an understanding of how much effort goes into the average book, and it’s a terrifying amount sometimes (a fact which sometimes makes me extremely angry when I see the kind of prices Amazon are targeting their e-books at, simply so that they can build a monopoly and squeeze the other e-book formats out of business).
Okay, I could ramble on for ages. What I want to say is this:
To the Media Companies:
The anti-piracy lobby need to change the record. Build a change in attitudes. Stopping piracy is like declaring a war on drugs or terror – it simply isn’t going to happen. Try and build the idea that supporting artists and the industry is the right thing to do. One of the things Paul Cornell mentioned in his talk was the fact that even the word itself – ‘piracy’ – gives it a certain sense of cool adventurousness, that you’re doing something bold and naughty. He’s right, and to be honest, I’d suggest that as far as downloading goes, don’t call it pirating, and don’t call it stealing – call it leeching. After all, downloading something is essentially parasiting on whatever bit of the industry you’re into – you’re taking something without giving anything back or having to bear any kind of cost. It’s an endemic problem that’s massively widespread, but it won’t change by waggling a warning finger. It’ll change by people talking openly about this, and it’ll also change when you realise that penalising customers who want to buy things legally is a very bad idea.
Bittorrenting makes things available EVERYWHERE – the licensing deals that the industry has been based on are suddenly meaningless (in the same way that Region Codes on DVDs are). The internet has connected the world together in ways many media companies (particularly in Hollywood) are still struggling to understand and keep up with. (The fact that Warner Bros are in discussions in the US for a Pay TV premium service to watch newly released cinema films at home is a step in the right direction, at least). You have a whole world of customers out there who are getting used to the idea that things are available almost instantly. And the trouble is, it’s inconsistent. Certain things are available instantly – others aren’t, often without any rhyme or reason. Things are available in the US that aren’t in the UK. Some things are available instantly, others (like The Walking Dead) simply aren’t. It’s often perplexing and confusing – and if there’s no alternative available, pirating on Bittorrent can often seem the easier choice. Even without discussing DRM, it is sometimes easiest simply to hook yourself up on Bittorrent – and basically, there needs to be a system that is as good, if not better, at delivering content. (In terms of actually obtaining content, Bittorrent is sometimes horribly fiddly and frustrating. The one advantage, aside from the fact that it’s free? Everything is available. iTunes is a pretty good delivery method for things like TV and Films, but like the still-underpopulated iBooks store, it’s always the gaps that stand out (like the fact that Fringe – a show I’d like to see Season 2 of sometime, and would be willing to pay for on download – also isn’t available).)
One idea I was discussing with friends recently is that you could have a US show made available worldwide online (say, via iTunes) at the moment of broadcast – but everyone outside the US has to pay, say, a pound more. It’s cheaper if you wait for the UK air date, but if you want to obtain it as soon as it airs, you can obtain it legally. Most people will happily pay for something if you give them the chance to. Stop hanging onto the past – move yourself forward. Is there any point in attempting to stick to ‘Exclusive’ release and broadcast windows in different territories when all people who want to watch the show have to do is activate a Bittorrent client, and there’s little to nothing you can do to stop them? Be progressive. And stop thinking that shouting ‘YOU’RE ALL THIEVES!’ will work. Because it won’t. Give people the service they want, and they will use it. The world moves on – things change – and you have to evolve or die. There’s evolution happening – but it’s lagging dangerously behind.
(A note to commercial TV competitors (especially those owned by a certain Mr R. Murdoch) – you may have a grudge against the BBC and want to see it cut down to size, but the BBC iPlayer is about the best online TV player that’s currently available in the UK, giving me a service that, to be honest, makes the licence fee feel like a bargain. The iPlayer is the current UK benchmark for online TV that’s available quickly and easily (for streaming and downloading) – if more companies (especially worldwide) aimed to achieve the iPlayer’s level of service and quality, I think it’d make a big difference…)
The main thing is this – if you treat your customers like they’re all potential thieves, all you’ll do is give people excellent reasons to dislike and resent you, and feel that by pirating they’re effectively taking you down a peg or two. People pirate for a wide variety of reasons – sometimes it’s because they can’t get it any other way, sometimes it’s because they want it fast, sometimes it’s because they’d rather have a version that doesn’t have DRM on it – and yes, sometimes it’s because they simply can’t be bothered to pay. But by turning the legal dogs loose on anyone and everyone, by lobbying governments to set up punitive enforcement strategies, you’re not just attacking the people who simply can’t be bothered to pay – you’re attacking everyone. The simple fact is this: pirates will find a way. The really dedicated people will still pirate, because the internet is such a bewilderingly complex place that it’s almost impossible to effectively police. Some casual downloaders may get scared off – but the people you really want to hit aren’t going to stop. Piracy isn’t going to go away – so use a different strategy. Explore alternate methods, and try to use the fact that the internet gives you a way of releasing things instantly, and across the world. You have a net-savvy audience out there who often find material that they’d happily pay for via piracy – but can’t, simply because the media doesn’t work that way yet. There is money to be made – and if you don’t do it, then some enterprising young turk is going to come along, crack the problem, and then you really will all be left swinging in the wind.
Change your attitudes. Open your mind. And enough with the legal malarkey.
To the downloaders:
You know the way you tell yourself that grabbing a season of a TV show you like off the internet doesn’t really matter? That grabbing an illegal copy of a movie from a torrent site isn’t really that big in the scheme of things? Well… it does matter. If you’ve watched something, and enjoyed it – you owe something. Yes, there are many ways in which obtaining media (like US shows) could be one hell of a lot easier but that doesn’t automatically absolve you of any wrongdoing if you want to watch True Blood S3 eight months before it airs on C4. You’ve watched something – you’ve enjoyed it – you should pay. Even if you’ve watched it through illegal, bootleg means. And… here’s the kicker… even if you didn’t enjoy something, you still owe something. The sheer availability of media does occasionally give the sense that you’re almost like a Roman emperor, getting to judge the fighters at the Colliseum – there’s so much out there, such a gigantic wealth of material, that even getting a season of a show doesn’t feel like much – hours and hours of material, and it’s easy to dismiss if it’s no good. The “Oh well, it was crap and I never would have paid money to see it anyway” excuse does not justify piracy, simply because if you’re not prepared to pay money to see something… you don’t see it. Simple as that.
What I’m saying is – we need a change of attitudes. Especially in fandom – in the places and forums where people genuinely love the material that is getting pirated – we need to be more open, and we need to understand that piracy does have a genuine effect, and that ALL piracy has a cumulative effect, in one way or another. (Anime is a very good example of this – fansubs have, over the last few years, had a pretty devastating effect on anime sales, meaning a number of shows simply don’t get released now – and this is pirating that’s being done by people who love Anime.).
This needs to be discussed. We need to talk about piracy, and be open about the fact that the technology that fuels piracy is never going to go away – but that the right and respectful thing to do is to pay for the content you use, to feed money back into the system. If there’s a legal download available, you get it – you don’t pirate it just to get it a few days ahead of the American air date. Yes, there’s plenty about the Media and it’s methods that need to change – but just because it isn’t bending over backwards to give you what you want at the exact moment you want it (and at a price you’re prepared to pay), that doesn’t give you the thumbs-up sign to go ahead and Bittorrent something. If you do, you owe. It’s as simple as that.
(Of course, there are the hundreds of complicated ways in which piracy aids sales – that spotting stuff uploaded to Youtube can very often encourage people to buy things legitimately. I’m not denying that – I’m just saying that maybe shrugging and saying “Hey ho, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” maybe isn’t the wisest move).
If you don’t support the things that you enjoy, and the things that give you pleasure, they will go away. Even in the case of blockbusters, the less money the big films or big books make, the less money there is to invest in the smaller, more interesting books or films. It should be right to simply stick your hand up and say ‘piracy isn’t good’ – that you shouldn’t be a leech, grabbing stuff from the endless cloud of illegal bittorrents that are out there without giving anything back. Plenty needs to change in the media and the attitude to piracy and life online – but we’re one of the things that need to change as well.
It’s a complicated issue, and I don’t pretend to have a definitive answer. I just hope that both sides of this equation can eventually realise that things can be better, and things can be positive – as long as things change on both sides.
(Is that sort of attitude going to result in everyone immediately paying money to buy legal versions of anything they’ve ever downloaded illegally? Of course not. But I can’t help feeling that trying to feed this sort of an attitude in – by making the approach to dealing with piracy (especially when it’s so endemic) a positive one (pay what you owe, support the things you love) rather than simply shouting DON’T DO THIS over and over again, that it will trickle outwards into the general mindset, and eventually will have a positive effect. Maybe I’m living in cloud cuckoo land, but hell – the view’s nice…).