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The Hitchhiker's Problem With "Content"

(note: I've slightly renamed this post as I've realized I have a bit more to say on the topic, so stay tuned.) 

On several recent episodes of Build and Analyze, Marco Arment spent some time chatting about "not fooling yourself" about copyright infringement. He admonished people who take the position of “I’m pirating it to try it, and if I like it, I’ll pay.” Basically, his point is that we all know that copyright is "the right thing to do" and that if you pirate something, at least admit to being a dirty pirate; don't pretend that you are doing something noble.

But this pushes me to ask the question - what exactly drives people to pirate and what is the true cost of (and payment for) intellectual property?

There is an inherent problem with "content" and more specifically, with the selling of content: It is not something you can ever return. When you buy a car, or a shirt, or a dresser, and you don't particularly like it, you can return it or resell it. For “content” like movies and video games, the same holds true if the item is defective (ie, there’s a problem with the media on which the content is stored) but heaven help you if you try to return an open video game (GameStop pre-owned trade-ins are a whole different thing and, in many ways, a direct response to the issue I’m outlining). 

I once faced this specific issue with a DVD I bought. The copy I grabbed was grouped with the “letterboxed” version in the store but was actually a rogue “full-frame” copy. I didn’t realize this till I got it home and popped it in. My attempt to return it for the letterbox version was quite an experience! As there was nothing physically wrong with the disc, my problem was with the content on the disc and that is not considered a valid reason to “return” a movie in almost any store that sells DVDs. I managed to convince the clerk to do the swap, mainly because it was a swap and not a straight return, but this example is only a stone’s throw away from the following scenario:

“Can I return this movie?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Well it’s just not very good and I’d rather just have my money back.”

And here we come to the crux of the issue. Most people are confused about what we actually pay for with content. Do you think you are buying the movie? A copy of the movie?  The right to play the movie? The disc on which the movie is encoded? You are not actually buying, leasing or renting any of those things. What you are actually buying is the “experience” of watching the movie. Short of a head injury, there is no way to return that and this is why, in general, there is so much resistance to returning these items - you're not actually returning what you paid for: the experience.

And so we’ve now arrived at the answer to two things simultaneously:

  1. Why people are driven to pirate
  2. Why free content, driven by advertising, is so pervasive

If the “experience” of the content is the property that is changing hands, it’s only natural that the currency used to purchase it is also experiential. Advertising fills this need pretty handily. What you want is to focus your attention on the content, and advertisers want that attention focused on them. There is actual money changing hands “on the back end” between the content producer and the advertiser but from the viewer/listener’s perspective, you are earning the experience of the content by trading your attention on the advertising.

Once you open up the idea of the viewer/listener trading actual money for the experience of the content, you get into the situation I described above which, despite Marco’s admonitions, is actually quite stacked against the customer. At its most basic level, the customer is being asked to pay up front, for something they may or may not like, with no recourse if they don’t like it. We should not be surprised that this causes some cognitive dissonance among people and that some of them are driven to “pirate” the content before paying up. When someone describes the “try before I buy” scenario, what they are really saying is that they don’t like the idea of paying up front, sight unseen. How many of us would buy a car, or refrigerator, or pants without seeing them first? And why do we consider someone who feels the same about a movie to be such a “dirty pirate”? 

In this case, all that person is doing is attempting to swing the balance back in favor of the customer and, given the “experience” problem I’ve outlined above, possibly over-correcting.

The content-seller-friendly version of the transaction gets them their money up front and the customer may get screwed. The flip gets the customer their content first and the seller might get screwed. And in general, ALL of this stems from the fact that we continue to treat “intellectual property” like its actual property despite the fact that it is not. But until such time as we find a better way to equitably encourage content creation, the "content as property" model seems to be the best we've been able to find. However, evidence has been mounting for years now that a more customer centric model (which risks the creator "giving it away for free" more than they may like) can, and often does, lead to higher overall sales and revenue than the old school "gimme my money up front" model.

When it’s all said and done, this can also be taken as a pretty convincing argument for why the free-to-play model is making such waves of late, but that’s probably a whole separate post. (e.g. “Why the free-to-play model is the grand unified theory of Product = Advertising”, but that's for another day.)


All that having been said, the vast majority of piracy is probably not committed by true “try before I buy” denizens. But some of it surely is. Speaking from personal experience, before I made the full switch over to AppleTV purchases, I would download episodes of pretty much every show I watch via bittorrent. I didn’t consider myself a pirate as:

  1. I also pay for DirecTV and so that content was “mine” as far as I was concerned.
  2. I would later buy Blu-Rays or DVDs of shows I planned to watch over and over (for instance, I own the first 8 seasons of scrubs, several seasons of Modern Family and full series sets of Buffy, Angel, Farscape and others.)

Am I misguided in my belief that I am an “honorable content consumer”? Maybe. But they still make lots of money off me, foibles aside.


Should Copyright be split in 2?

The following post was originally written in June, 2010. I am reposting it today to coincide with the ongoing SOPA protest.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the state of copyright in the digital world.  I took a few “law classes for non-lawyers” when I was finishing my undergraduate degree and one focused specifically on intellectual property in the digital age.  I found it completely fascinating.

Quick question, of the following 3 options, what is the PRIMARY function of copyright?  (in the united states)

  • to prevent people from profiting from the work of others
  • to guarantee creators the exclusive right to profit from their own work
  • to promote the open exchange of ideas

Here’s what the United States Constitution has to say about it:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

You may notice the distinct LACK of a mention of profit.  I bring this up because I think we as a society have lost our way with regards to the usefulness of copyright and other intellectual properties.  The term of copyrights, back in ye olden days, maxed out at around 28 years – a 14 year term with an additional 14 year optional extension.  Ever since then, it’s been continuously extended to the point we are at currently which is long enough as to be essentially meaningless for normal people (once you start measuring things in “life of the author plus”, it is essentially meaningless, in my opinion).

So what’s wrong with having such protections?  And why would someone whose work is protected by copyright (the code used in apps) be against them?  It all goes back to the stated purpose of copyright in the first place.

The goal of providing protection to authors for a LIMITED time is to give an incentive to create.  Which then brings us to the question of WHY we want people to create.  I would hope the answer to that would be self evident.  But the idea of these protections being LIMITED is an important one because it creates something that is often taken for granted – the public domain.  If you want to know why Grimm’s fairytales are constantly being remade, or how the novel Wicked ( could be written without a license from L Frank Baum, you need look no further than the public domain.  This is a magical place where copyrighted works pass on to and become the property of all humanity.  The beauty of this place is that it means that anyone can use them in any way to continue the cycle of creation.

So what the hell am I talking about when I say “split copyright in 2”.  Well I’ve been thinking that maybe we should start looking at the idea of copyright through a whole different lens.  I’m starting to think that maybe we break it into “primary” and “secondary” copyright.

Primary Copyright

Primary copyright would be a lot like how we see it today, but with time limitations more in line with how things started.  Just to pick a number, let’s say 25 years.  In my opinion, if you create something with the goal of profiting from it, and you can’t make that happen in a quarter century, it shouldn’t be the job of copyright law to facilitate it.  Primary copyright would be unable to be transferred (similarly to moral rights –, except with regards to works made for hire or instances of corporate authorship.  This is what leads us to:

Secondary Copyright

Most of what happens in the world of copyrights today is related to licensing.  Warner Brothers buys the rights to Harry Potter, and they alone are licensed to create movies based on the books.  In my vision of secondary copyright, the type of license you can buy is a little different than it exists today.

In keeping with the stated goal that copyright is meant to promote the PROGRESS of science and the useful arts, secondary copyrights would be limited to a shorter period than that of primary, say 12 years.

In today’s world, the book of Harry potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published in 1997.  When will it’s copyright expire?  The answer is, we won’t know until J. K. Rowling dies.  But from that day, you need only wait 70 short years and then book one (and ONLY book one of course) will pass into the public domain.  Do you see what I mean by essentially meaningless?  There’s a decent chance that less than 1% of the people reading these words right now will live to see Harry Potter enter the public domain.

Under my proposed system, the book will enter the public domain in 2022, a good 12 years from now.  Still a decent amount of time for J. K. Rowling to have exclusivity over publishing rights.

And the movie?  The rights for the first Harry Potter movie were secured in 1999 and the movie released in 2001 which would allow that movie to pass into the public domain in 2013 under my proposed system; only 3 more years.  At that time, anyone could copy and re-release the movie for their own profit.  It’s obvious why the studios would hate this idea, but why should we, the people love it?

How about these:

  • Imagine a DVD version of Harry potter that has a joke commentary in place of the actual audio, MST3K style.
  • Or a version that has a video AND audio commentary where you (yes, YOU) pick apart the frame composition by drawing over the pictures to describe why some shots work and others don’t.

Neither of these are legal without express written permission (and a hefty license fee) under the current system, until and unless the item in question is in the public domain.  But there is a key distinction to be made here:

in 2013, when the movie passes into the public domain, the book still has some time on the clock.  You still can’t shoot your own version of the movie based on the book and this is by design.

As I see it, the act of CREATION falls within the definition of copyright, as it is laid out in the constitution.  Sure, there could be a profit motive, but the act of creation itself is why copyright exists.  But the act of licensing is driven by one motivation: profit.  As such, I don’t think it deserves the same level or length of protection.  If you license a work, in search of profit, you get limited time to do so.  If you can’t secure a profit in that time, it’s not the job of the law to provide you with “the long tail”.

Is this proposal perfect?  Doubtful.  But I think it presents a decent first step in swinging copyright back to the track it was originally meant to be on, and away from the current “corporate profit protection statute” that it has become.