The Internet Strikes Back

After SOPA and PIPA: the Entertainment Industry Needs to Adapt not Resist

The 18th January saw the Internet rise up and rear its head in an unprecedented show of force, with online giants such as Google, Wikipedia and Reddit leading a massive campaign against SOPA and PIPA, the planned anti-piracy bills being debated in the US Senate and Congress. Perhaps most hard-hitting, especially to students, was the terrifying ‘black-out’ of Wikipedia, which asked hapless users to “imagine a world without free knowledge.” Social networking sites soon began to buzz with talk about the dangers of the planned piracy bills, and by the end of the day political support for the bills had crumbled. American lawmakers and politicians began to realise just how much they had underestimated the power of the internet.

The criticism levelled against these anti-piracy bills was well-founded. They proposed to block access to any website which violated copyright law, meaning that sites which allow users to share information such as YouTube or Wikipedia could be shut down if just one user illegally uploaded copyrighted material. Backed by some of America’s most powerful lobbying groups representing big business and the entertainment industry, those drafting the bills did not even attempt to consult representatives of the internet, and therefore failed to reflect some of their legitimate concerns.  Namely, that these draconian laws would have severely restricted the free-flow of information online, and in the process threatened the development of what has perhaps been the most profitable and revolutionary invention in human history.

Admittedly though, piracy is a huge problem, and one that costs the entertainment industry billions of pounds in potential revenue each year. With music and films so easily obtained for free online, many see little point in going out and purchasing them for the full price. Of course, this is not morally excusable, and is rightly classed as theft. Yet it is also partly explained by one of the ongoing mysteries of the digital age. Although the running costs associated with packaging, retail and marketing have been removed, many major companies have failed to adapt and still expect us to pay full price for what have effectively become intangible goods. Should we really have to pay iTunes 99p per track, or channels such as Film4 £3.50 to watch a film (once)? Unlike other areas of mass consumption, much of the entertainment industry just doesn’t seem to have matched its prices to the lower costs of production.

Others though have shown how revenue can be sustained by taking a more pragmatic approach to online sales. Many bands have followed Radiohead’s example and are giving away albums in exchange for voluntary contributions. Meanwhile on-demand movie services such as LoveFilm, which offer users unlimited access for a small monthly fee, are rapidly growing in popularity. In addition, revenue from online video advertising has rocketed, more than quadrupling since 2008. This shows how many people would prefer to pay a small but reasonable fee, or simply watch a couple of adverts, in order to enjoy a reliable, high-quality service and avoid the guilt and risk of illegal piracy.

Meanwhile in China, where pirated DVDs have long dominated the market, some companies such as Fox and Time Warner have started selling films for as little as two dollars in order to recover some of their lost revenues. More recently, a deal was made between Fox and Chinese video website Youku, allowing online users to view the latest Hollywood films for a tiny charge. Similarly in India, which also suffers from rampant piracy, firms have begun selling legitimate DVDs for cut-prices, beating the counterfeit competition by providing higher-quality and risk-free goods

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This shows how those powerful lobbying groups within the entertainment industries who pushed for the US anti-piracy bills have to adjust to the new realities of the information age. Whilst efforts to legally clamp down on piracy are fully justified, they will never fully succeed in upholding copyright law, and should not come at the cost of the freedom of the internet. Like the war on drugs, the war on piracy is unwinnable; people will always find a way to circumvent the law. The film and music industry therefore need to find more effective ways of safeguarding their profits, by lowering their prices, increasing ease of access or finding alternative sources of revenue such as advertising. The real way to beat piracy then is not through legislation, but through the market.

London Student 26th January 2012

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