The members of a writing list with which I’m involved are engaged in a very interesting debate about the dangers and evils of bootleg copies and illegal downloads. While most members take the stance you’d expect of people who produce unique intellectual property, that all copying, however benign, is evil and shouldn’t be tolerated, a few are questioning whether that’s really true.
In particular, when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Software Publishers Association talk about the billions lost to piracy and illegal copies, their argument is based on a false premise: that every single person who bootlegs or pirates would otherwise have purchased the original.
I just don’t think that’s true. In fact, I think that the vast majority of people who have pirate or bootleg copies of music, movies, software or books would never have spent a dime on the product if that was the only option.
Realize as I write this that I have visited peer to peer (P2P) network repositories and found free-to-download PDFs of books I’ve written, so I’m not a stranger to the production and artistic side of this equation either. But really, given the predominant demographic of p2p users and given the substantially greater convenience of a print book (and that most of my books are about $20 or less anyway), being in the p2p space doesn’t bother me too much.
First off, obviously, I don’t believe that the denizens of the p2p world would be buying my book at the bookstore if they couldn’t get a free download, but there’s also a visibility issue too: of the dozens and dozens of Unix books available, for example, I’ve more than once found my Teach Yourself Unix in 24 Hours the only ebook or only tech ebook out of thousands of files. At that point, it’s almost just a savvy marketing strategy: anyone who reads through more than 20-30 pages of my book will realize that for not much more than the cost of printing it out and having 350+ loose pages, they could just go and buy the actual book at Amazon.
In the motion picture segment, however, the situation’s different. Or is it? Productions now routinely cost over $100 million by the time they’re in the theater, but let me ask you this: how many times have you seen a great trailer just to find the film really stunk? Most Hollywood production companies are still following the same tired star formula that MGM and United Artists pioneered well before we were even born. Good actors, good directors and good production companies can still produce bombs, and a cast of unknowns can create magic on a big screen. But the previews sure don’t help you know which is which, do they?
So how are we supposed to choose between good and bad movies? I’ll bet that a lot of people in the p2p space use “cams” (recordings made with camcorders smuggled into the theater – which, yes, is illegal) as a way to preview a movie. It helps avoid wasting $9-$30 or more for a real loser of a movie, and to identify those great movies that really must be seen on a big screen.
When the MPAA complains about the millions lost to bootleggers, I can’t help thinking that if there were more good movies being produced, there’d be more revenue coming in. But then again, last I read, Hollywood was doing pretty well up until the string of summer flops arrived in the theater.
In any case, I can’t help thinking that the reports of billions lost by the recording, movie, software and even publishing industry are, as Samuel Clemens might have said, “greatly exaggerated”.
What do you think?