“I’ma shoot a bootlegger!” [On Piracy]

December 9th, 2010 by | Tags: , ,

Over the past week, I’ve watched a handful of episodes of One Piece on Hulu, picked up half a dozen new and old albums on Amazon across a variety of genres, bought eight issues of Eric Shanower and Skottie Young’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for reading on my iPod, added samples of a couple ebooks to the same, and purchased Persona 3 Portable for my PSP. The whats don’t really matter here. People buy things all the time, and I’m no different. The how, though, is pretty interesting when you think about it. I did most of this from my couch, and no physical media was involved. It was entirely digital. And without piracy, I don’t think it would have happened at all.

Companies, or corporations, or whatever, are generally conservative. Once they have a revenue stream, they will squeeze it until it’s dry, and then keep squeezing, just in case. When faced with a new way of making money, they will first try to graft old business models onto it and essentially make money the same way they always have. When forced, they will embrace new paradigms, but not without a fight.

On top of that, businesses are by their nature hostile to consumers. They want your money, first and foremost, and anything that allows them to maximize the amount of your money they get is probably going to be fair game. When Jay-Z said, “I’m a hustler, homey/ You a customer, crony” in “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” he summed up exactly how the consumer and manufacturer relationship works. They’re about money, and if you have money, you’re a target.

In the past, if you wanted to watch a tv show, you had to tune in at the right time or hope someone taped it for you (which was probably technically illegal). If you wanted to buy an album or hear a song, you needed the radio or a record shop. Video games? Go to Funcoland. Books? Hit the library. And on and on and on.

The internet, and piracy, changed that forever. For the first time, non-physical media became a possibility. MP3s caused a catastrophic drop in the perceived value of music. Being able to store hundreds, or thousands, of songs on a computer, and later an mp3 player, makes you rethink how you approach music. You don’t have to buy albums that are half filler just to get the two or three songs you like. You can just get those songs. Even if you like all of an album, you don’t need a six foot high stack of jewel cases any more. It fits in your pocket.

The record industry reacted conservatively, or maybe with abject horror. Rather than leaping on the format, which was small enough to be downloaded easily even over 56k (bitrate depending), the RIAA moved to block anything that could play it. Later, they tried to eradicate it by creating un-rippable CDs. Still later, once they realized it wasn’t going to go away, they produced their own portable music format. This was loaded with software that let you play your music at their discretion, and only on machines or via software that they allow. Years later, they gave up on DRM and finally let you have what you paid for, playable on whatever you want, whenever you want.

Years ago, I modded my first Xbox. It took nothing but a bit of video game and a file loaded onto a memory card. After that, I could copy games I bought to my Xbox’s hard drive, or just straight up download games and do the same. It was absurdly convenient, and made things like Halo parties or marathoning games with friends much, much simpler. Same for the PlayStation 2, after the hard drive for that dropped.

There are plenty of other examples. Downloading movies, books, anime, tv shows… comic books. Take your pick. Piracy changed how people, normal people, consume media. The free price point is worth a lot, obviously, but the convenience and ability to do what you want with what you’re consuming counts for even more, I’d say. If I wanted to kick a friend or cousin a song I liked, I could do that. If I wanted to play a bunch of games at somebody’s house without bringing over eighteen cases, I could do that.

It’s years later now, and things aren’t much different in effect. If I want to go over a friend’s house for some games, I throw my PS3 into a backpack and head over. At most, I’ll grab Rock Band 3 and the keyboard. When I go to watch TV, a movie, or the Ohio State game, I get on my computer or PS3. When I want to read a book, I don’t pick up something made of dead trees. I pick up a little electronic device.

The method of execution, though, is definitely different. I can pay for all of this now, and I get content when and how I want it at a price I think is reasonable. I recognize that I am a target, but I don’t feel like I’m being victimized or gouged by someone’s quest for profit. Just flicking through my Amazon playlist on iTunes, which contains everything I’ve bought from there, I can guesstimate that I buy a new album every couple of weeks. The rest of my collection is filled out with free mp3s direct from the artists themselves, mixtapes, or things I’ve found on Bandcamp. I use Netflix for movies, Hulu for TV, and ESPN3 for sports. Amazon’s Kindle service puts books in my hand less than a minute after I buy them, and I read them on the same thing that plays music. I recently got a PSP (again) and decided that I’d not buy any of those dumb little discs for it. Why should I? I can turn on my PSP or PS3, click an icon, navigate to what I want, click “Checkout” and bam, it’s downloading. I don’t need discs any more.

What do I want? Everything. When do I want it? Now. This is the world we live in.

Am I endorsing piracy? Obviously not. If you don’t support the arts, there won’t be any arts. Every idiot who ever had something they liked cancelled on them could tell you that. Culture doesn’t grow on trees. But, at the same time, it is what it is. Piracy isn’t going to go away. People counterfeited Renaissance-era art. We used to get bootleg tapes from the man at the barbershop. If people are going to pirate, they’re gonna pirate, and to be perfectly frank, you can’t stop them. Weed is still illegal, but I guarantee if I wanted a half ounce I could make a call after work and have it before dinner, possibly even in dessert form. Just because it’s wrong doesn’t mean it isn’t easy to find.

I don’t think you should try to justify piracy, or anything you do that’s legally wrong. I think that’s just another way of lying to yourself. That’s just childish. But at the same time, this sort of hardline, “We have to eradicate piracy!” stance that shows up in places like the comments here on Johanna Draper-Carlson’s latest post about piracy? That’s a fantasy. It’s got no basis in reality. It makes about as much sense as all the nonsense I was taught in DARE as part of the War on Drugs and is probably a third as effective. Telling someone “This is bad!” hasn’t stopped anyone from doing anything since the Garden of Eden. Most people will do the right thing out of the goodness of their own heart, but if somebody’s gonna pirate? They’re gonna pirate, doggie, and they’re gonna keep ignoring you. Ask Nancy Reagan about how effective the War on Drugs has been sometime. It’s cool that you disagree or whatever, but those of us here are trying to talk about the real world, where mean things happen and you can’t do anything about it.

It’s unfair, but that’s life. Life sucks. Wish I could say otherwise, but, hey, it is what it is. And it isn’t going away. So, all that’s left to do is look at why people are flocking to pirated goods. The answer isn’t “because it’s free.” That’s a significant part of the equation, to be sure, but it isn’t the whole story. And if you’re trying to fix piracy, for whatever value of “fix” you personally hold, and you aren’t looking at the entire picture, you’re a fool. You can’t judge the width and breadth of something by looking at it with a microscope.

Not all pirates are customers. Every torrent completed on Demonoid isn’t a lost sale. Some people download stuff just to be downloading. They like the e-cred, or they’re completely OCD and it’s easier to count mp3s than bits of straw. It is pretty much impossible to discern between pirates and potential customers, but arguing as if all the people who downloaded your joint off Demonoid would’ve bought it is lunacy. I see a lot of guys walking around with girls in this city, but that doesn’t mean every single girl was a potential girlfriend that I’ve now lost forever thanks to someone getting in the way. A few of them? Sure. Most of them? Yeah, sure, I believe that on days when my ego is completely out of control. But all of them? That’s crazy talk.

The music, video game, publishing, and film industries, once they got done recoiling in abject horror and pretending piracy had no redeeming value at all, finally listened to the people who wanted to be their customers rather than pirates. They gave us what we want in a way that benefits both of us. I get to pay for things I want and in a format I’m cool with and they get what’s basically a constant stream of money shooting out of my wallet.

If you want to fight piracy, you have to be better than piracy. Crap advice? Maybe, but it applies in almost every aspect of life. Want to make more money than the brown-nosing douchebag down the hall? Make yourself more attractive to your employer than he is. Want to date someone, but your predatory homeboy is after the same girl you are? Be better than him. If you want to compete against people with an unfair advantage, you do better or you lose. And even then, sometimes, you still lose.

A huge selling point of digital media is convenience. That makes convenience into an anti-piracy measure. It gives me a choice. I can hop onto rapidshare and download an album, then possibly re-tag, and then add album art, and then add it to iTunes, or I can kick Amazon five to ten bucks and get some high-quality audio, (usually) properly tagged, and with some nice album art built in. Nine times out of ten these days, I choose Amazon.

Achievements and Trophies on 360 and PS3 are other anti-piracy measures. You don’t get to partake in competing with your friends over your gamerscore if you pirate. If you don’t believe that score chasing is a huge part of gaming culture right now, find out how many of your Xbox owning friends played through King Kong because it gave away 1000 gamerpoints around launch time. Make sure to ask them if they enjoyed playing through that game, too. Go ahead. I’ll wait. No, I won’t, because the answer is “almost all of them” and “none of them,” in that order.

Piracy changed the game. It has hurt a lot of people, and that sucks, but at the same time, it’s created a world where being conservative makes you a dinosaur. It’s forced companies to evolve and actually listen to what their customers want. The world changed. Screaming about how illegal or unfair it is isn’t going to fix much. We’re at a point where almost all of the medium we consume is being adjusted to fit into a brand new paradigm. Whether comics or movies or tv or music, physical media is diversifying and digital media is rapidly expanding. Everything changes, usually for unfair reasons. Pay attention to what came before, look at what people want, and adjust accordingly. You can evolve or die.

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13 comments to ““I’ma shoot a bootlegger!” [On Piracy]”

  1. “If you don’t support the arts, there won’t be any arts. Every idiot who ever had something they liked cancelled on them could tell you that. Culture doesn’t grow on trees.”

    That’s… Not really true, historically. Heck, the amount of free content generated and given away *right now* on an “I just want to express myself!” basis is pretty staggering. Some of it’s even good. 😉

    The only forms of art that arguably couldn’t be supported in a free-for-all environment are the ones that require huge amounts of startup capital – so A+ budget movies, AA+ budget video games, and the kinds of ongoing TV series that need lots of shiny.

  2. Well fucking said, Brothers. Well fucking said.

  3. @Flypaper: Honestly, I listen to a lot of music that I get directly, or maybe once removed, from the artists. Most rappers I like give away something like two or three albums worth of free music a year, and then make up the costs on album sales, touring, and merch. Even/especially the indie cats. The music may not be making the money, but they couldn’t be doing that for free without some kind of recompense. Unless they got a sugar daddy or something, I guess.

    You’re mostly right, though. I could coast on legal and free content of varying types for ages if I put my mind to it.

  4. If only videogames, books, and comic books could take a page from the music industry.

    I know a lot of people that still want the option to have something tangible, something they can hold in their hands. For videogames it’s a disk. For comics it’s a floppy or a trade.

    And the reason for that is that, in music, when you rip a CD, you get a .mp3 file, that is yours to do as you wish. You can play it in any device you want, you cant burn it, et all.

    Not so much with videogames, books, and comics, because you don’t really OWN the things you are buying. You buy them to play or read in a device. When that device goes kaput, then so do your digital copies.

    For instance, with the Wii, you download stuff to your console, but when it inevitable stops receiving support, and your console breaks, where do your digital copies go? You can’t transfer game files to a new one. At least with the PS3 and Xbox360, you get accounts, but if years from now those services become discontinued, will you get the option to “burn” them?

    Remember when Amazon remotely removed those books that were not supposed to be available for its Kindle device? If you bought, they were technically yours. What if you want to switch to another reader that is not a kindle? Can you transfer the files? I think the same applies for comics and comic apps.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is: music CDs contain .mp3 files, a universal format for handling your music. You’d think other industries that are being forced to evolve into the digital realm would learn from the mistakes of the music industry.

  5. If you want to fight piracy, you have to be better than piracy.

    THIS. Thiiiiiis.

  6. @Two-Bit Specialist:

    I could be wrong but I think the common formats for e-books are ePub and PDF? I have no clue if downloadable digital comics are using either format, but the pirates tend to use .cbr files, which could be an option as well.

    What if you want to switch to another reader that is not a kindle? Can you transfer the files? I think the same applies for comics and comic apps.

    This is something that concerns me too, and I think David touched on that with respect to Amazon and iTunes having dropped all that DRM business. These days an iPod or e-reader is bound to last you only a few years, especially when there’s always the pressure to buy the latest version. Before I invest in digital comics, I want to make sure I can take them from device to device, to make sure they’re really mine to own and use.

  7. Nice post. But damn, too many dancin’ gifs.

    Where companies do themselves the most damage in the piracy arena is with DRM, locked formats and the ability to disable/yank my content. Antagonistic behavior toward me as a consumer makes going the piracy route a lot more attractive. Makes it almost seem fair, since the corporation is trying to screw me, so — ha ha! — I’ll screw it instead.

    Ain’t saying that’s right, but I’m saying that if the entertainment vendors put more effort into not pissing off their customers, they might find more customers were loyal and unwilling to engage in pirating. Industry always talks about “fighting piracy,” but as you say, piracy can’t be stamped out. They might get as much, or more success, from “embracing consumers.”

  8. fascinating article, but the gifs are pretty geocities. maybe toss in a line of fire and some rotating skulls.

  9. I’m piling on here, but ownership is a huge issue for me with digital comics. Which sucks, because I think digital distribution is a great way to cut out the oppressive middle-man that’s Diamond and other distributive problems smaller creators and publishers have.

    Right now I think Comixology has a great set up, but I haven’t bought one comic from them yet. If those guys close shop or glitch out (http://www.ifanboy.com/content/articles/Is_a_Digital_Comic_Really_Yours_to_Own_) then I’m screwed. I don’t even know the terms and conditions for the Marvel or Comixology apps yet, but this discussion makes me want to look further into it. I guess most publishers think that since it’s digital there’s nothing to really own, but obviously I disagree with that reasoning.

  10. @zodberg Reading a David Brothers post and complaining about GIFs is like reading a Kirby comic and complaining about dots

  11. Everything said here is true.

  12. @zodberg: I hate to dogpile, but… bro gifs like these weren’t even around during the height of geocities. Maybe if it was a flashing, otherwise static gundam, you’d have a point.

  13. 9/10 amazon? high quality flac files ripped from vinyl.. that’s where its at. and personally, i LOVE tooling around with my itunes… its not the radio, its my music and it ain’t OCD.

    Nobody’s made an appetizing alternative to downloading and torrenting… and no one will… WHY? because its FREE and the limits are our imaginative abilities with a computer.

    Now if only we could download food!