How Pirates Are Born

(Again, because I actually write about pirates, I have to specify that I'm talking about the lame kind of piracy today, not the swashbuckling kind. I will, however, use the swashbuckling kind to make my point.)

Before I get into this, understand I am generally against piracy. This is not a post about why piracy is okay. This is a post about why it happens, and what can (and cannot) be done about it.

So, say media producers -- Random House, NBC, Nickelodeon, Blizzard Entertainment, etc. -- are the governor, and their media is their smart, beautiful, confident daughter. Like any father, the governor wants his daughter to marry the right man, and he'd rather not have to pay a pirate's ransom to do it.

Consumers, then, generally fall into three categories: pirates, commodores, and Will Turner.

Real pirates don't actually care about the governor's daughter. They just want the ransom. The governor goes to great lengths to protect his daughter from these ruffians -- sometimes even making life more difficult for law-abiding citizens -- but in the end, if Captain Jack Sparrow really wants to kidnap and ransom her, he will.

These are the guys who will always rip off your media and distribute it for free (sometimes even if it's free already!). It doesn't matter what DRM or geo-blocking you put up, or where you release it, they can and will get their hands on it. These are the guys that make DRM almost worthless.

Fortunately, they represent a very small percentage of Actual People. Also fortunate: because they're never going to pay for your stuff anyway, they don't count as lost sales. That means media producers can effectively ignore them. Seriously, your daughter is fine, just pay the ransom and move on.

Of course the governor wants his daughter to marry the commodore. He's wealthy, has a good title, and most importantly, he always obeys the law.

It's the same in the media world; the commodores will always obey the law and terms of service you provide. They don't know what torrents or VPN services are, and they don't want to know.

Unfortunately, like real pirates, commodores represent a very small percentage of the population.

Will is a really nice guy. He's honest, strong, he works hard, and he hates pirates.

At least, he used to hate pirates, until the governor's daughter disappeared. When he asked the governor about it, the governor just shrugged and shook his head. So Will did the only thing he could do: he turned to the real pirates for help.

I think media producers would like to believe that most people are either pirates or commodores. Unfortunately, that's not true. Most people -- I'm thinking 80% or more -- are Will Turner. We don't like pirates. We don't want to be pirates. But at the same time, we really, really love the governor's daughter, and we'll do anything to see her.

If the media Will wants is available for a reasonable price, then he doesn't have a problem. But when his favorite TV show is geo-blocked, or the eBook costs more than the paperback, or the movie isn't released in his country, it forces Will to choose between the governor's daughter and the obscure ethics of copyright infringment.

And since Will is just a humble blacksmith, and there are a lot of fancy words in those terms of service, he usually ends up infringing.

Once someone pirates one thing, the ethics get fuzzier. The software is still on his computer, and downloading twenty movies is as easy as one. Will's unlikely to turn into a full-blown pirate (since that requires some savvy), but he probably won't see things the same as the commodore again.

What can media producers do? Provide the same service as the pirates, or better.

One of the most common reasons for digital media to be blocked from certain countries is a fear of piracy. "You can't release in Russia! You're just asking to be pirated!"

As game developer Gabe Newell discovered, that is ridiculous. The real pirates are masters of distribution. What you geo-blocked for US only, they have released to the world. Yesterday. When you don't release something in a foreign territory, you are only removing the pirates' competition.

But the pirates are not hurting your sales. What hurts sales is when Will Turner goes to your website or walks into the store looking for a legal copy and is told he can't have it because he lives in Russia or Thailand or Canada (seriously, guys, you're geo-blocking Canada?).

Will Turner (points at self) is your fan. He's willing to sit through commercials or pay a small fee to consume your work legally. Will wants to support you, but you have to give him the option!

When you force people to choose between pirating a show or not watching it at all, many will choose piracy. Your terms of service just aren't as attractive.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I heart this post on about four different levels. And having had my book pirated, it's tested my belief that fighting the pirates is just a giant time-and-energy suck that I should steer clear of like the black hole that it is. But I make my book available just about everywhere possible (except bookstores! Because they don't allow it! Ah, but there's no profit for the pirates there ...) - so I'm fairly certain that the easy-on-the-eyes Will Turner's of the world are not pirating my stuff. It's the scurvy dogs. Who wouldn't pay my (very reasonable) price anyway. So, I'm back to ignoring it and moving on with my life (and writing more for the righteous Commodores).

Also: this post isn't fair. I'm TeamWillTurner.

Matthew MacNish said...

Exactly. Or when Will owns your album on Vinyl, and CD, and has the live DVD, but he can't find his CD, and doesn't want to hook his turntable up to his laptop to make a legal recording, he might turn to bittorrent, and I'm not sure I would blame him.

This is why media should be sold as single licenses, for use in any format, and on any device. Will is your customer, make it as easy and as fair as possible for him to consume your media, and he will stay loyal. He's a good person, and he wants to do the right thing.

Charmaine Clancy said...

You make pirates sound cool again :)
Wagging Tales

Steve MC said...

Well said, sir!

MattyDub said...

I can't help but feel that you wrote that whole post just to use the word "savvy". Well played, Adam Heine, well played.

Angela Brown said...

I do believe that the governor and Will could reach and accord if only they could just savvy that they have the same goal in mind: ensuring the best end result for the governor's daughter. But perspective is the mother of confusion.

lindsay kitson said...

They block Canada because it's totally a pirate's haven. They're trying to pass the same type of bills here as SOPA, but they haven't managed it yet. But the percentage of the population who has access to personal computers is higher in Canada than most countries. I'm sure the geo blocking has something to do with it too, but the geo blocking is a joke. DRM is a joke, and you're totally right - it doesn't stop people from pirating, it only stops them from making legal purchases. :(

Adam Heine said...

I can neither confirm nor deny that.

Adam Heine said...

"They block Canada because it's totally a pirate's haven."

Interesting. I never thought of Canada that way.

But you're right that this reasoning is foolish. Geo-blocking and DRM are ridiculously easy to get around. Using these to block a whole country only makes more pirates.

Melodie Wright said...

I AM Will Turner...and here I thought I was Elizabeth. Dang.
Love this analogy - totally helped my wee little brain to understand this issue. Thanks!

Keriann Greaney Martin said...

"When you don't release something in a foreign territory, you are only removing the pirates' competition."

You are so smart. It's true, if there's a TV show I want to watch but they don't have it on their website to watch old episodes or On Demand, I end up searching for it in other places even if it seems a bit fishy. I just want to see it because I'm a fan. Plus it was already provided for free on TV.