Media Companies: Your Nightmare Piracy Scenario has Arrived, And Its Called Popcorn Time

Two years ago I said that the nightmare piracy scenario for the media industries would be when the pirates gave up trying to fight enforcement and turned their attentions to build great user experiences.  Now with the arrival of Popcorn Time that scenario has come to pass.  However bad piracy might have been for media companies, it is just about to get a whole lot worse.  This is the new era of Experience-First Piracy.

Popcorn Time is an open source interface that sits on the top of pirated video content on torrents.  Instead of downloading the video Popcorn Time streams them to the end user, with titles selected from a neat Netflix-like interface.  In fact one might argue a ‘Netflix clone’ interface (see figure) but with new releases that Netflix does not even have.  On top of all this Popcorn Time is open source, with installer and project files all hosted on developer collaboration site GitHub, and with the app built on a series of APIs.  With multiple development forks already this is an entirely new beast in the piracy arena.  Forget whack-a-mole, this is potentially a drug-resistant, mutating contagion.

popcorn time

In fact Popcorn Time looks exactly like what I envisaged two years ago:

“What if a series of open source APIs were built on top of some of the more popular file sharing protocols so that developers can create highly interactive, massively social, rich media apps which transform the purely utilitarian practice of file sharing into something fun and engaging?  If you thought the paid content market was struggling now imagine how it would fare in the face of that sort of competition.”

Piracy for the Mainstream Consumer 

Until now, piracy was largely the domain of youngish tech savvy males (69% male, 50% under 35). Popcorn Time and the inevitable coming wave of new Experience-First piracy apps will give piracy truly mainstream appeal.  It looks and feels just like the real thing, only for free and with even better content.  What’s not to like?  Worse still – for media companies, not consumers – these sites might – even have a legal defense as they do not actually host any of the files.  The emphasis there is on the ‘might’ as it is an argument that ultimately the Pirate Bay was not able to defend in court.

Three Ways to Hit Back at Experience-First Piracy

So what can media companies do to respond to Experience-First Piracy? Legal action will be the first port of call but ultimately it is a pain killer, not a cure.  The problem itself needs addressing with three key strategic focuses:

  • Windowing: Netflix can only dream of having the content Popcorn Time has, just as early licensed music services could only dream of having the catalogue Napster had in 1999/2000.  The movie studios need to learn that lesson fast, and treat Netflix and Amazon Prime etc. as tier 1 release window partners.  As soon as a release is ready for its first post-theatre window it should go straight onto the paid video services.  BlueRay and DVD are fading yesteryear technology, the media industries’ most engaged and valuable audiences are online and using online services.  It is time to treat them as first class customers, not second class ones.
  • User Experience: Before Experience-First Piracy, the retort to media companies was that all they needed to do in order to stay ahead of piracy was to create more compelling alternatives.  Now the ante has been well and truly upped.  There will never ever be the user experience gulf again.  That time has gone.  This means licensed services have to be continually pushing the user experience envelope, using their capital to hire the very best designers and developers.  Which means that content companies need to saddle them with as little up front rights acquisition debt as possible, freeing them up to spend big on development and design.
  • Pricing: The harsh reality of the internet economy is that when something is widely available for free you have to make your paid-for product even cheaper than it was intended to be.  For Netflix and Spotify et al, that means getting below $5 a month.  Ironically this happens at just the time that Amazon increases its pricing for Prime and Netflix is considering increasing its pricing in order to cover higher rights costs.  Media companies have a crucial decision to make: do they want to get more revenue per user out of a user base that will quickly lose share to Experience-First Piracy, or instead do they want to take a near-term revenue hit in order to shore up their digital service partners’ longer term future?

The fact that piracy has spent so long locked in a user experience quagmire is testament to the media industries’ counter measures: pirate sites were just too busy figuring out how to evade enforcement to focus on user experience.  But now that era has come to a shuddering halt.  It is difficult to over state the dramatic effect Experience-First Piracy will have on the paid content landscape unless media companies do everything within their powers to help the nascent licensed services respond in kind.  The smart companies realized long ago that content is not the product, experience is.  Unfortunately the pirate’s just figured this out too.

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The Hybrid Album: A Music Product Strategy Proposal

We are in the midst of a transition from ownership to access models but it is a shift that will take a generation to complete.  The intervening years will all be about managing the transition, both in terms of educating consumers but also with regards to ensuring that the revenue shift is as smooth as possible.  The download and the stream will co-exist for many years – especially in many emerging markets – and Apple’s iTunes Radio is a key example of how the two technologies can live side by side.  But more still needs to be done.  To that end what follows is a product strategy proposal that puts streaming into the very heart of download experiences while simultaneously driving download spending.

The Hybrid Album is a very simple and straightforward proposition:

  • Entire album download: when ever a download store customer purchases more than one individual track from an album the entire album and album art will download to the purchaser’s device.  The two track threshold is important as this proposition is not intended to swim against the tide and clutter the path for consumers that only ever want to buy single tracks.  Buying more than one track from an album though indicates a little more than passing interest in that album and represents an opportunity to engage the buyer with the entire release.
  • Two free streams per track: the purchased tracks will behave as normal downloads, the remainder of the album though will be presented with a stream icon that informs the purchaser that all the other songs on the album can be streamed free of charge, twice each.  Once any track has been streamed twice the icon will change to a click to buy icon.  Also when any single track has been streamed twice a ‘complete this album’ call to action will appear with a ‘save x% if you buy within the next 24 hours’ or ‘get an extra exclusive track free if you buy within the next 24 hours’.

And that is it.  Very simple but with the potential to be highly effective.  It gives download customers a taste of the on-demand streaming experience but directly drives spending.  The licensing that would underpin the Hybrid Album will be more complex than the consumer proposition but it is not exactly an insurmountable challenge, with plenty of analogous precedents to leverage.

It is a proposition that is comparatively simple to implement and with low risk.  Let’s get it done!