When the Media Industries Really Need to Start Worrying About Piracy (and it’s not yet)

I’ve been a digital media analyst pretty much as long as mainstream music piracy has been around.  I’ve tracked the rise and fall of many sites, services, networks, applications and protocols, including MP3.com, Napster, Music City Morpheus, iMesh, Audio Galaxy, Bear Share, eMule, Gnu Network, Kazaa, Limewire, Pirate Bay, Rapidshare, Megaupload etc etc.  The point I’m trying to make – other than my career’s slightly concerning alignment with the rise of music’s grey market – is that the sector is built upon reinvention.  And that power of reinvention is the key reason why the music industry has a bigger piracy now than it has ever had before.

Of course there are statistics that suggest the file sharing is on the wane in a few markets – notably Germany – but overall the problem is getting bigger because:

  • Non-network piracy is in the ascendency. P2P is declining in importance as a medium for piracy.  Non-network sharing (hard drive swapping, darknets, Bluetoothing, mini-nets, digital lockers, forums, binary groups, Instant Messaging, music blogs) are collectively more widely adopted than P2P in many major markets and are growing fast.  All tactics of course which are much more difficult to track and police than P2P
  • P2P is getting smarter.  And for those who still do use P2P there is an ever growing array of tools at their disposal that make it harder for their activity to be tracked, ranging from encrypted versions of mainstream P2P apps through to the Pirate Bay’s current shift from Torrents to Magnets

Of course media industries are upping their game too, with major legislative efforts in the US, UK and France, though all with mixed levels of success.   The lesson of the last decade plus though, is of course that whatever actions the media companies take, the piracy problem will be more than a step ahead.  Legislation, judiciary process and enforcement are all slow moving beasts.  Typically by the time media industries catch up technology and consumer needs have moved on.  For example the Pirate Bay looks like it could be blocked from consumers in the UK but a quick search on Google for the name of your content of choice followed by the word ‘torrent’ will serve you up an exhaustive list of alternatives.  Pirate Bay simply isn’t needed anymore.

Do we have the right services?

All of these dynamics are probably familiar to most, but I think we may be on the verge of something very different and of far greater concern for rights holders.  One of the key reasons – some would argue *the*key* reason – piracy is still growing is because the $0.99 cent download and the heavily delayed movie release  simply don’t appeal to most digital consumers.  US VC Fred Wilson recently stated in a Paley Centre debate that ‘we are all pirates’ and that if ‘99% of people are breaking the law then it is the wrong law’.  My twist on that statement would be that if ‘99% of people aren’t using the services that they are the wrong services’. (Of course more than 1% use legitimate services but we are still talking about a nice minority).

Don’t get me wrong, we have some absolutely fantastic services out there for the current installed base of digital music customers, but they are patently not the right services for majority of consumers who account for the 95% of total downloads which are illegal (according to the IFPI).  Regular readers will know that I have been building a case for a music format revolution (you can download my Music Format Bill of Rights report here for free).   There are some really promising first steps happening from some promising start ups but rights complexities are acting as a major decelerator on innovation in this space.

What happens if digital piracy starts to learn from the mobile App revolution?

Of course the grey market has no such problem.  They only ever concern themselves with rights issues if they get taken to court or decide to try to go legit (Napster, Limewire, iMesh, Kazaa etc).  To date the focus of piracy technology has been evading the music industry.  But now, with the revolution in high quality user experiences that the App market has created, there is a very real risk that much of this ethos will bleed through to the grey market.  Indeed there is undoubtedly some direct overlap between the App developer community and the piracy developer community.

The nightmare scenario for media companies is that the pirates turn their attentions to developing great user experiences rather than just secure means of acquiring content.  What if, for example, 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 though the paid content market was struggling now imagine how it would fare in the face of that sort of competition.

In the longer term one could hope that such a scenario would act as an accelerator for liberalization and innovation of rights owner practices, but in the nearer term it would be a death knell for many of the current services that have worked so hard to get achieve what they have within often suffocating confines.

Content monetization strategies need reworking too

I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again now, and many times again: fighting piracy requires a big fat carrot to go along with the stick.  More than 300 $0.99 download stores in Europe and North America alone is not a carrot.  Now is the time to give the legitimate sector the tools, licenses and support to innovate like never before.  It is also time to recognize that just because piracy users don’t always spend money does not mean that they are not spending.  In the digital age consumers transact in three equally valuable currencies:  Money, Data and Time. Those currencies however are not equally valuable to all industries (e.g. TV broadcasters value time more than record labels, online newspapers value data more than book publishers etc) But it is time for those three currencies to be equally tapped by digital content strategies across all industries (regardless of whether that currency is valuable to them), with supporting ‘virtual commodities’ trading marketplaces in the backend to ensure that all stakeholder ultimately end up getting paid in the currencies they value most.

Unless user experiences and monetization strategies are innovated beyond recognition then the grey market will do it instead, creating a wave of digital piracy that will do for media revenues what the iPhone did for Nokia’s smartphone business.

Sopa Highlights Media Industry Strategic Failings

The controversial US copyright and piracy acts Sopa and Pipa (see this Wired piece for a Bluffer’s Guide on what they are) have been thrust centre stage by Wikipedia’s planned protest black-out on Wednesday.  It has taken an entity the size of Wikipedia to bring the debate out of the confines of the digerati and to the mainstream.   For that Wikipedia deserves great credit.

And the debate does need to take place in the mainstream.  The effects of the bills (if passed, upheld in the face of legal challenge and then successfully implemented) will be felt keenly by mainstream consumers.

However I am not going to add to the already vibrant and detailed discussion about the ethical and constitutional implications of the bills, nor the legion flaws and ambiguities in the proposed legislation. Instead I want to put Sopa and Pipa in the context of wider media industry strategy and response to digital change.

Sopa, Pipa and the Media Meltdown

Back in my days at Forrester I helped develop the concept of the media meltdown to describe the process of media industries responding to the impact of digitization.

The media meltdown occurs in three key stages:

  • Stage 1: Audiences take control of their content consumption via new digital technology (think CD ripping, P2P, on demand video streaming, iPads etc).
  • Stage 2: Traditional media industry business models crumble while media companies grapple with denial.  Instead of comprehending that a paradigm shift in consumer behaviour has occurred they think they can turn back the proverbial clock by fighting online piracy and restricting the disruptive threat of legal services.
  • Stage 3: There are two potential conclusions, either the media industries comprehend that user behaviour has changed for ever and that they need to embrace that change with new business models, or they fail.  (For more on the media meltdown check Forrester’s CPS blog and the ever insightful James McQuivey)

Of course as with any analytical framework, this is a generalized world view but it provides a very useful lens through which to view media industry anti-piracy legal activity, lobbying and resultant legislation.  It is immediately apparent that Sopa and Pipa fall within stage 2 of the media meltdown but it would be disingenuous to suggest that the media companies that have lobbied for them – and for other acts such as the French Hadopi act and the British Digital Economy Bill – are in complete denial.  Rather what we have is a distortion of priorities.  These media companies and their industry bodies in particular rightly identify online piracy as a major disruptive threat to their businesses.  However,  instead of recognizing that behaviour shifts have occurred around which new businesses should be built, they reason that turning off the tap on piracy will starve piracy of oxygen, until it withers away.

Digital Piracy Perennially Outwits the Pursuer

As well intended as this thinking is, it is flawed.  Digital piracy (in its many, many guises) is all about innovation and change.  Every time media companies manage to finally catch up with digital piracy – either through enforcement, legislation or technical measures – the pirates have already moved on. Fighting piracy is akin to a game of whack-a-mole, but in this version of the game the moles learn.  Every time one is smacked down another one comes up that is smarter, harder to see and more difficult to reach.

Mainstream Consumers Become  the Effective Targets of Anti-Piracy

The simple and unavoidable fact is that piracy will always move more quickly and more effectively than its pursuers.  Technology improvements can be measured in days, even hours.  Legislation takes years.  This dynamic is one of the key reasons why acts like Sopa and Pipa have such far reaching implications for mainstream consumers: the hard core tech savvy pirates will always find ways of evading the counter measures, the mainstream will not.  Remember how DRM inconvenienced legitimate customers and did nothing to impact pirates?  The parallels here are clear.  Of course there are obvious and important differences between digital content buyers and passive pirates, but there are also similarities.  One of the most important of which is that they are often the same people.  Many paid content buyers also access free illegal content: they blend their content acquisition practices, often using free illegal sources for either discovery or the content they are just not willing to pay for, and then paying for the rest.

Legislation is Fully Necessary But Strategic Priorities Need Rebalancing

To be clear, this is not an apology for piracy, nor is it an argument against legislation – indeed it is crucial that laws evolve quickly enough to keep up with digital change so they can establish the frameworks in which legitimate content business models can prosper and illegal ones cannot.  Instead I am making the case for a rebalancing of strategic priorities and for taking the long view.  Consumer behaviour has changed for ever.  More people are consuming more content across more platforms than ever before, but fewer of them are paying for it.  Making free illegal content harder to get will only weaken consumption and demand unless game-changing legal alternatives simultaneously fill the vacuum.

For example, turning off access to the Pirate Bay and then pointing users  to iTunes will fall far, far short.  Media companies need to get brave, like never before, and quickly so.  They need to start looking at what makes the illegal services so threatening to them and then give legitimate companies licenses to do just the same, legally.  Some media industries get this more than others. For example the TV studios quickly realized the best way of fighting free was with free itself, launching Hulu, ABC.com and iPlayer as genuinely compelling (in fact even more convenient) alternatives to BitTorrent.

Legislators: Compel Media Companies to License to Identikit Legal Alternatives

If the US Congress wants to ensure that Sopa and Pipa are balanced in a way that will help drive digital innovation rather than stifling it in favour of analogue-era protectionism, they should look to baking-in binding innovation commitments from media companies.  To ensure that for every type of illegal service that is wiped out of the US-facing Internet, the opportunity is created for new companies to offer the same type of service legally, with guaranteed licenses from media companies (i.e. without being watered down to irrelevancy with usage restrictions).  Then Sopa and Pipa could become the foundation stones of a period of unprecedented media industry innovation that would finally recast the mould of media business models in the post-meltdown world.  The alternative is media industry failure.  Though they might not realize it, the media industry lobbyists are currently on track for hastening their industries’ demise, not safeguarding their futures.