21/04/2010

Don't Assume Piracy is a Problem

One of the most fundamental mistakes in assessing this new world brought about by the internet and what it means for distribution and business (or more accurately, the business of distribution) is to assume that piracy - file sharing, illegal or otherwise - is a problem. To assume piracy is a problem is to assume that inefficiency is good, that inefficiency is needed and that to maintain it for the sake of maintaining certain sources of income and jobs is the right thing to do.

To do that is to fool yourself. To create a false economy based on how you wish things were, not how they are. It creates a false economy based on enforced inefficiency, rather than one based on reducing and removing inefficiency. The ultimate goal of politics, technological development and business ought to be focused towards removing barriers to freedom, equality and knowledge by creating systems that allow these things to prosper. The web fulfils all these goals. It allows knowledge to be distributed wider and cheaper than ever before, creates more opportunities in personal and business life and enables more people to make use of their freedom, even in countries that try to suppress it.

To assume piracy is a problem assumes:

  • We don't want cheaper forms of distribution
  • We don't want to reduce the waste of natural resources
  • That enabling access to information so cheaply is bad
  • That enabling greater ability for "ordinary" people to distribute and share is bad

For years our goal has been exactly the opposite. The printing press was such an important invention simply for the sake of making distribution cheaper and easier. Yet, when we make a milestone achievement of being able to have free distribution? Well, now it must be a problem, right? Sure, we wanted the ability to distribute, and we wanted it to be cheap, but now it's too cheap. So cheap that businesses that grew around those problems and whose entire model is based upon selling access are going downhill.

The fact is, we pour resources into things typically so that they may become more efficient. When something becomes efficient enough that we can put less resources into it and still get the same or better result, that's a success. Due to these resources typically being money and time, this may mean that jobs are dismantled, and money appears to leave the industry that has grown up around it, leading to people believing that our economy and society as a whole is being disadvantaged. What is typically not mentioned however is that this allows more resources to be put into things that do need it, including new inefficiencies that are created and emphasised.

The reduction in resources needed to facilitate large scale distribution leads to an increase in resources needed for the filtering of all the content being distributed, or an increase in resources needed to facilitate sharing of and communication about content that people enjoy. Systems that enable efficiency often put the inefficient ones around it in the spotlight. The money does not disappear and the jobs are not lost - they are moved.

The key to taking advantage of this to create models that work with the efficient parts, and against the inefficient ones. Software that once had to be made by one or 2 companies of 300 or so employees at a time and distributed via factories producing millions of plastic discs and hundreds of brick and mortar stores can now be made across many companies and even individuals, distributed through one, two or hundreds of websites with central warehouses or even entirely by its users. This allows a reduction in cost of development and cost of distribution, so it may seem detrimental to software as a business and as a part of the economy as money appears to leave.

Yet, the things that make this possible creates and emphasises the demand for a developers expertise and time, both of which are limited and also require solutions in themselves to help alleviate the inherent problems in managing and saving time. The higher degree of access to software this creates emphasises demand for hardware, both upgrades and entirely new device categories, alongside services that make using software across all these devices easier and more manageable, whether that's synchronisation of settings and files or even troubleshooting.

Music that once required high end recording studios, expensive equipment and the same factories and brick & mortar stores can now be done at home with comparatively low cost computers, one, two or hundreds of websites or even entirely by its listeners. The higher degree of access to music by various bands increases demand of filtering tools to let people find music they're interested in quickly and easily, hardware and software that can play the content alongside demand of the musicians time and expertise. Markets for tools that help the musician manage their time like selecting places to do live shows by aggregating information that indicates demand is also increased.

To assume piracy is a problem and DRM or other means is a solution is to assume our current inefficiencies are required to be a healthy, prosperous and a fair society, when it's exactly those inefficiencies that restrict our ability to create such a world.

4 comments:

  1. Very well explained. You put an interesting spin on the argument: honestly I'd never thought about it that way :-)

    Erk - I sound like bot, too general!

    I really like this post - very logical, and I like the idea that moving towards greater and greater freedom of information isn't detrimental to information only to the distributors of said information.

    I'd like to make games and sell them online. Now I can :-)

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  2. Ha, thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.

    That last line is very true. Sometimes you have to consider - would you have been able not just to make the games, but sell them and get the kind of attention you've gotten as you guys have now? Especially with the Indie Humble Deal.

    I think that also helps put a more critical spotlight on the assumption that all piracy is lost sale - would you even have been able to make any sales with the ease of distribution and low cost we experience today, even if it does come with the ability for users to do it too? The answer to that is very different for indies than it is for publishers (who subsequently end with a more extreme view against piracy and for DRM).

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  3. "To assume piracy is a problem assumes:

    * We don't want cheaper forms of distribution
    * We don't want to reduce the waste of natural resources
    * That enabling access to information so cheaply is bad
    * That enabling greater ability for "ordinary" people to distribute and share is bad"

    I think all those things are good, and yet I still think piracy is bad. Making assumptions about what I assume makes you look like a fool and makes the rest of the article redundant.

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  4. "I think all those things are good, and yet I still think piracy is bad. Making assumptions about what I assume makes you look like a fool and makes the rest of the article redundant."

    Not really. The assumption that piracy is bad indeed seems to imply other assumptions about technology. If piracy is bad, that means that making distribution zero cost must be in some way disadvantageous.

    It's these same things that make piracy possible. It's an assumption the technology genuinely has a down side, and often in these cases leads to treating that down side with more importance than the positives, without due thought for the advantages its brought, and indeed how those advantages can actually continue to fuel business and the ability for people to make money.

    Treating piracy as a problem will always lead you to treat all the positives of the internet in a way that attempts to null exactly those same things.

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