I’ve been thinking of the greater repercussions of torrents. Now we’ve all read articles touting both sides about torrents not harming entertainment sales and the exact opposite. Of course, people who take advantage of torrents will say that pirated torrents do not take away from traditional sales in any way. It’s up to hollywood to make movies that make consumers want to pay. This is human nature. Essentially people are saying make movies donation ware and we all know how profitable donation ware is. The fact is, if you have something available for free there is no way to compel people to pay. Imagine a “pay what you feel” model of taxation. It just wont work. But I digress. I’m not here to advocate one or the other.
What I want to talk about here is stepping outside of the finger pointing and ask if there are really only pirates and original content manufacturers? We like to see things in terms of good guys and bad guys (or gals if you prefer). Here we have pirates versus the entertainment industry. Which side is good depends on which side you’re on. I think we’re looking at it wrong.
I see three major players on the provider side and one consumer side. For content providers we have the entertainment industry, pirates after profit, and hobbyist pirates. Naturally, hobbyist pirates include consumers with varying levels of participation.
The pirates after profit have their own distribution channel and ties to some kind of organized crime (otherwise they wouldn’t be able to distribute it, even if their distribution was digital, and earn a profit). They can take any number of forms from the illegal street peddlers on up. Hobbyist pirates are not gaining any income. They may be doing it to fill their own needs as a consumer or out of some kind of twisted altruism. Some may even just be craving some kind of indirect peer recognition.
I see hobbyist pirates competing primarily with the real pirates first rather than the entertainment industry. Why get pirated media from peddlers? First there’s the risk of arrest and a paper trail left by any kind of monetary transaction. Not to mention the act of paying for something that could be “free”.
Torrents are slowly closing in on the art of reappropriating content and packaging it as your own for fun and profit. In other words, torrents first and foremost cannibalize the latent piracy market. Of course, on the other hand it turns people normally averse to illegal activity into offenders but that’s another topic.
Sometimes I wonder if the industry’s fight against napster, kazaa and the other “centralized” peer to peer sharing networks was really a victory. At least back then you had a central go to service that you could control. On top of that you basically had a lot of bogus content. Not just misleading content but downright malicious files. It was a dirty business full of risks even for those that partook in the piracy and the general content of stuff was low (partly due to the bandwidth and technology available).
All it took was one brilliant programmer to make peer to peer truly peer to peer and make it hard to crack down on illegal consumers as a group. That’s the crazy thing about torrents: larger files, higher quality, less risk and using load-balanced/distributed resources.
It still leaves a bunch of questions unanswered. Obviously, the entertainment industry will never enjoy a golden age of profits unless they come up with a totally new and compelling form of entertainment that simply cannot be reproduced on a personal computer or in a home environment that also has a high margin of profit. At the same time, now that we have an abundance of digital content, a lot of consumers don’t realize that we no longer live with an ownership model for content. We’ve effectively moved on to a rental model of content. You don’t own the movies and music on your hard drive, they own you! Don’t believe me? Add the up the extended playing time of all the media you own and divide it by what’s left of your life expectancy. The abundance of free stuff we can consume is bounded by the amount of time we have to live.
I think this is also one of the things feeding into the decline of hollywood. Even studio releases are more or less the equivalent of direct to video productions (the pre-2K b-movies). We’re only onto a start. The next decade should be even more interesting. I think we’re heading toward an indie model for content as witnessed by some of the more innovative stuff you find on places like YouTube.