Content piracy is often cited as the biggest threat to pay-TV and, by extension, the creative industries. Stopping it is the job of content security technologists and law enforcement. Comparisons are sometimes drawn with the drug trade – indeed, rights organisations sometimes claim the same organised criminals are involved and that by infringing an owner’s copyright an individual supports drugs barons. It has also been alleged that piracy is conducted by criminals linked to terrorists.
But infringing copyright – even at the level of organised pay-TV piracy – isn’t really like the drugs trade, is it? Drugs, of the kind that are dealt illegally, are not available legitimately anywhere (or very few places), so there are no ‘right choices’ for users, or addicts as they are known. No one is ‘addicted’ in the true sense to pirated material.
Also, there are no legitimate Drug Corps from which the users are stealing, no R+D, or marketing budgets being ruined. On the other hand there are many pay-TV companies and TV producers and film studios and rights holding organisations, very few of which seem to be on the point of ruin. They produce goods people very much want to consume but sometimes at a price, or in a format, or not in a territory that they want.
In recent times the rise of OTT has hastened the hand of major providers to make their premium content available over many more devices with UIs and functionalities they didn’t deliver when their monopolies seemed safer. Mostly they have done it gratis as part of the service, and in doing so have preserved their audiences, stabilised cord cutting and doubtless dis-incentivised a lot of piracy.
Now, perhaps, international regulations and copyright laws can catch up and make their contribution to reducing demand by making it easier – or, if necessary, compulsory – for high demand content to be made available simultaneously, or near simultaneously, across as many territories as possible. If this threatens some window-based business models, so be it – technology means those are yesterday’s models anyway, and either new models will replace them, or the model will be piracy.
To continue the drug trade comparison, it is fairly tiresome to have similarly over-hyped statistics rained down upon us all the time. Ten, no twenty, no fifty guzillion dollars of prime content are stolen every year, no month, no day…. Really? How do you know? Which warehouse did it go missing from? Where’s the inventory? It is impossible to know in any but the vaguest terms how much traffic is illegitimate use of owned content, and yet the best (biggest) estimates of what it might be are taken and extrapolated to the equivalent volume purchased at full retail price in order to come up with the order of magnitude of value being stolen. Please, give us a break.
But by far the saddest analogy with drugs is that with the ‘War on..’. The fundamental argument is always whether the ‘guns’ should be directed at the demand side – attacking the conditions that create the drug addiction, the terrorism, the piracy – or on the supply side; wiping out those who pander to that demand. If you concentrate only on the supply side you end up in a never ending shooting match, literally. And routinely criminalising the end users – street drug users, (the individual rights infringer), well, that’s always worked terribly well, hasn’t it?
In some areas ‘anti-piracy’ already feels like a war, and the trouble is if you fight it that way you begin to legitimise using ‘combat tactics’. It looks like the crown jewel of piracy law enforcement, the closing of Megaupload and the arrest of Mr Dotcom, may be very tarnished because unlawful surveillance tactics were used to bring the prosecution. If you have to break the law to enforce it, you’ve got the wrong police or the wrong law, or both.