The Solution to Piracy Is Quality Content at Fair Prices

Charles W. Moore’s essay on copyright law (see Copyright Bullies May Win Some Battles but Must Lose Their War) raised a lot of good points about the way vested interests (such as the RIAA and MPAA) have changed the nature of copyright from something that serves the public interest into something that only serves publishers.

It’s a tough call, and we have a vested interest in the topic ourselves. We publish original content on Low End Mac and make it freely available for anyone to read. Our business model is advertiser-based, similar to TV and radio stations. We earn a fraction of a penny every time someone views one of our pages.

Our model fails when people violate copyright and reproduce one of our articles online without permission – and usually without links. It’s one thing to discuss a column on Low End Mac (LEM), quote bits from it, and include a link for those who wish to read the whole article. It’s a whole different thing to quote the article in its entirety. It’s both a violation of copyright and something that undermines our business model.

In some ways, we’re in the same boat as the RIAA and MPAA. Piracy of our content has a financial impact, and we’re grateful that it’s been quite rare.

There’s not a lot we can do to prevent unauthorized use of our content. It’s freely available to all, and it’s easy to cut-and-paste our articles or view the source code of any page on the site. There’s no copy protection, and we hope that visitors will abide by our terms of service and that people quoting from our articles will do so judiciously and include a link to the original article.

Audio and video piracy is on a whole different scale. Individual tracks, entire albums, and whole DVDs are available online for illegal download, and legal prohibitions (i.e., copyright law) can’t prevent this widespread piracy.

Why Piracy Is Wrong

While we think that copyright law has gotten out of hand in that nothing seems to enter the public domain unless it’s explicitly placed there, we also think that copyright law is a good idea. If you create something, you should be able to benefit from it for a reasonable period of time.

Regardless of that, writers, composers, photographers, painters, and others should have legal protection for their creations, and that’s what copyright provides. We should be able to control when and how our material is used. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.

Our business model consists of serving a whole lot of pages every day and earning a fraction of a penny per page from advertising. Tiny bits of money times a million pages a month turns into real money. And if someone quotes one of our articles on Slashdot, for instance, tens of thousands of people who might have read the original article here won’t need to, depriving us of tens of thousands of fractions of a penny.

In the same way, artists should benefit from their work. Whatever the morality of pay systems for recording artists, writers, actors, directors, and the like, the studios deserve income from each copy of a track, album, or DVD so they can pay the artists.

I’ll grant that many people who download MP3s would never pay for some, most, or all of the material they download. But the iTunes Music Store has proved that some people are willing to pay for digital downloads. A lot of people are willing to pay for it.

Perhaps only 10% of those who illegally download pirated tracks would pay for them, but if 100,000 people are swapping the latest hot tune, that’s $10,000 in potential income lost to piracy.

Despite the claims of some, content doesn’t long to be free. Content has no opinion, but writers, musicians, and others should be able to benefit financially from their work. That’s why we are opposed to piracy.

You Can’t Stop It

One of the main points of Moore’s essay is that piracy is widespread, most people would never report someone for doing it, and the likelihood of getting caught is minuscule. If millions of people are doing it, perhaps 10,000 have been contacted by the RIAA.

Just because people are getting away with it and most don’t consider it a serious issue isn’t a reason to dispense with copyright or stop enforcing the law. By that argument, it made sense to end Prohibition – but what of recreational drug use, prostitution, or driving 15 MPH over the speed limit? Lots of people are involved in these activities, many people don’t consider them a big deal, and the odds of getting caught are relatively low.

Technology vs. Technology

If technology has created the problem, perhaps technology can solve it. The RIAA has been experimenting with copy protection schemes for CDs, and online music services have digital restrictions management (DRM) built into the tracks you download. This makes it harder to pirate content.

But it doesn’t make it impossible. There will always be ways to capture a sound stream, digitize it, and share it. There will always be ways to fiddle with DVD content, break the protection, and distribute it. Yet the RIAA and MPAA are investing a lot of money in developing new standards, new hardware, and new laws to protect their content.

As Moore notes, it’s going to be an endless battle. The DVD Jons of the world will find ways to crack the protection, and they will find servers in locales not under the jurisdiction of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) where they can post their findings.

What About a Media Levy?

The most insidious solution is one found in Canada and some other nations – essentially putting a tax or levy on blank media. If it can be used to illegally pirate music or video, assume that it will probably be used that way and tax it.

This puts the government in the position of collecting and distributing money for the RIAA and MPAA, and that’s not what governments are supposed to do. Governments exist to protect their citizens and promote justice. They do not exist to collect funds for business.

Media levies are a bad idea, and I hope it never catches on here in the United States. They add to the price of blank cassette tapes, blank CDs, blank DVDs, raw hard drives, and MP3 players – whether they will be used for piracy or not. That’s not just, especially for people who fill their iPods with their own ripped CDs and tracks purchased from the iTunes Music Store.

Is There a Solution?

There are several ways of solving the piracy problem. One is attempting to make it as close to impossible as technology allows and pass laws that make cracking content protection illegal. It hasn’t worked.

The levy solution penalizes everyone for the infractions of a few and the benefit of business. It creates a revenue stream for business that isn’t dependent on creating content and charges the innocent as well as the guilty. It’s morally bankrupt.

Education is part of the solution, but the RIAA and MPAA have been far too heavy-handed in equating content piracy with real world theft. Downloading an MP3 is not the same as shoplifting a single from your local Walmart. Shoplifting involves taking a tangible item that cost the store money; piracy doesn’t involve a physical object, nor is an item the cost money being taken.

Affordable content is the best deterrent to piracy – like the 2/$11 DVD bin at Walmart. Why bother downloading a torrent for hours or days and burning it to a DVD if you can buy the movie for $5.50?

The Best Solution

I think the best solution hasn’t been tried yet. It’s an extension of what Apple is already doing with the iTunes Music Store. Sell content with some restrictions – and offer better quality content than 128 kbps MP3s or 320 x 240 video streams.

For casual listening and most types of music, 128 kbps AAC tracks (the kind Apple sells) are quite adequate, but they’re not significantly better than MP3s, and with certain types of music they are audibly inferior to CDs. What if Apple were to start selling higher quality tracks? What if Microsoft’s Plays4Sure partners were to do the same thing? Wouldn’t people be more likely to pay 99¢ for tracks of higher quality than the typical pirated MP3?

Update: In January 2009, Apple moved from 128 kbps to 256 kbps AAC tracks on the iTunes Store, also moving to DRM-free music tracks at that time. Known as iTunes Plus and only available on EMI and a few smaller labels starting in May 2007, it is now the norm. Old DRM-protected tracks can generally be updated to the higher quality, DRM-free format for 29¢ each.

In April 2009, Apple moved from 99¢ across-the-board pricing to a three-tier model with tracks selling fro 69¢, 99¢, or $1.29. The vast majority of current and popular music sells for the highest price.

Ditto for video. As tempting as is might be to download Commander in Chief at $1.99 per episode and watching it on my video iPod, I don’t have a video iPod. I’d be watching it on my Mac, and the quality at sizes larger than 320 x 240 isn’t so good. It’s nowhere near DVD quality; for $1.99, it should be closer.

If Apple were selling episodes for $1.99 each at 720 x 480 or 640 x 480 resolution, that’s comparable to DVD. And it would provide a whole new market for this content – people who want to watch it on something other than a video iPod.

Offering a season pass would also be nice. $1.99 for a single episode isn’t bad, just as 99¢ a track isn’t bad for audio. But just as a whole album often costs less than the individual tracks, a full season of Lost or Desperate Housewives should be available at a bit of a discount from individual episode prices – and definitely less than buying the season on DVD.

You can pick up the first season of Desperate Housewives from for under $40 shipped, shop around and maybe find it for $35, find it on eBay for under $30 shipped, or pay nearly $35 for Apple’s low resolution version. Or, if you’re in no hurry, you can join Peerflix [since defunct] and get if for 6 Peerbux (worth about $20 total, and it looks like it’s going to be a very long time before anyone is willing to swap a copy).

We’re looking at 23 episodes. Bought a la carte from iTMS, they would cost $45.77. Purchased as a full season, that drops to $34.99 ($1.52 per episode). Except for those who only want to watch it on a video iPod, why would anyone in their right mind buy low quality downloads for virtually the same price as a high quality DVD set?

On the other hand, if you could download the same content in a higher quality for that price – something closer to DVD quality and way better than 320 x 240 quality – Apple might have a product that could compete with DVDs, just as buying music from iTMS already competes with CDs in most genres.

Updsate: Apple now offers HD television episodes in 720p and 1080p quality for $2.99 per episode, a $1.00 premium from its regular offerings. By comparison, SD quality videos are 853 x 480 pixels, which is great for any iPhone, iPod touch, and standard definition (1024 x 768 pixel) iPads. This a huge step forward from the original 320 x 240 pixel format used with the video iPod and slightly higher than the 720 x 480 you get on a 29.97 frame-per-second (fps) DVD (the norm in North America). If you have a Retina iPad or a computer with a 1280 x 720 pixel or larger display, you may find HD video offers a slightly better experience.

For best quality, go Blu-Ray. Although it supports the same 720p and 1080p resolutions as iTunes, it has a lot more data for superior video quality.

Apple Is ‘That Close’

I believe the ultimate solution is some digital restrictions on copying (I think Apple’s FairPlay is a good compromise) with better quality than the typical MP3 or Apple’s current low-res iPod videos and fair prices.

Apple comes close. FairPlay is reasonable, and so are individual track and episode prices. They’re adding season passes and monthly passes for some content. And for most kinds of music and most listeners, iTunes quality is very adequate.

But if Apple could offer a superior product – iTMS tracks that audiophiles would appreciate and videos good enough to look nice on your TV or computer monitor – it would have products that could really make inroads against piracy.

The solution isn’t to make piracy impossible, but to make affordable content a viable alternative. Some people will never pay and always pirate, but a lot of us are willing to pay for quality content.

And maybe some day we’ll be able to buy our favorite movies from iTMS as well – but they’re going to have to be at higher quality than today’s 320 x 240 videos.

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