Jolly Roger skull & crossbones pirate flag.
Internet piracy is rife. Pirates are stealing, sampling and remixing ‘copyrighted’ content to such a degree that in my opinion it is pointless fighting it. So why do we fight it? Why not accept it, embrace it, and adapt our business models to compete against it instead?
Recently I read “The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism” by Matt Mason, and it left an impression on me. Then I happen to chance upon piracy of one of my articles. This started me thinking about piracy and hence this article.
What is a Pirate?
So what is a pirate? A pirate is someone who uses or reproduces someone else’s creative property without paying for it or obtaining permission (more on that later). A pirate is someone who robs you on the high seas. A pirate is someone who promotes efficiency, innovation an creativity, and has been doing so for hundreds of years.
Piracy is theft, there’s no doubt about that. Companies and copyright owners lose money to piracy. But piracy is everywhere nowadays. You only have to look at the millions of people who download movies, TV shows, music, software and ebooks without paying for it or obtaining permission from the author. Raise your hand if you have ever watched a pirated movie, downloaded a song, or installed a software program without paying the author for it. I would be the first to admit I have consumed pirated material. Who hasn’t?
But although piracy seems wrong, it has its place. Without piracy, the movie, recorded music, radio and cable TV industry might not be as we know it today.
Hollywood was Created by Pirates
According to Matt Mason, the film industry of Hollywood was built by pirate filmmakers. Thomas Edison, the inventor of filmmaking, demanded a licensing fee from people making movies with his technology. Filmmakers fled to California where they thrived, unlicensed, until Edison’s patents expired. The recorded music, radio and cable TV industry are also the product and beneficiary of piracy.
In most civilized countries, a police force maintains order, detects and prevents crime, and enforces the laws. The Internet doesn’t have a police force. So if someone copies your content, who’s going to enforce the law?
Copyright owners are left to fend for themselves. You could hire a lawyer, but how many of us can afford to pursue every person who pirates our content. And what about pirates in countries that don’t have much respect for copyright law? They are virtually untouchable.
On the internet, digital content can be reproduced thousands of times, in seconds, for minimal cost. The cost and viability of policing it simply is not feasible.
As a result, the Internet is full of pirates. And where pirates prevail, law-abiding businesses have to adapt to the new pirate economy or perish. If you think about it, piracy is just another business model.
Hundreds of Pirates Steal My Articles
One of the marketing strategies I used to get people to link to my mikes-marketing-tools.com website is to allow other people to republish my marketing tips on the condition that they include my bio at the end of the article. Most people comply with the request, but some don’t.
I happen to chance upon one of my articles on a website with no mention of me or the bio it was meant to include. At first, I was a bit upset. So I decided to find out just how many people have pirated that article without credit. According to Google, 381 webpages contain my article. And 108 (28%), or roughly 1 in 4 were reproduced by a pirate.
If we take that figure as a guide, it could mean a quarter of the internet’s content is created by pirates. Who knows what the true figure is. What it does show is that content piracy is an issue content producers have to contend with.
So I know that 108 websites have pirated my article. What do I do about it? Should I go after every pirate and tell them to either give me credit where it’s due or remove the article from their website? But how many would even comply? And how much time and effort would it take?
If You Can’t Beat Them – Join Them
The thing you have to remember is that if you shut down one pirate, more will invariably take their place. So it would be a fruitless exercise. History has shown us that even major companies and even entire industries can’t beat the pirates. Just look at the movie, music and software industry.
Hollywood creates about 500 movies a year – give or take. Why don’t they release movies that people probably won’t watch on the big screen and movies that aren’t likely to be box office smashes in theaters, on pay per view TV, DVD and online all at the same time?
And why don’t they charge less for access to these movies? I never quite understood why they charge the same price whether you watch a $200 million blockbluster, or a $5 million movie. That’s like charging the same price for a hamburger and a steak.
Apple iTunes has shown that consumers are willing to pay for music downloads, if you give them what they want (singles), where they want (online) and how they want it (no copy protection).
The software industry has shown that you can build a business around free software (open source), by offering valued added services.
Web Content Are Open Conversations
Instead of fighting piracy, I think we should accept it and compete against it. Instead of wasting time worrying about content pirates, maybe we should think of the content that we create online (tweets, blog posts, forum posts, articles, etc) as ‘conversations’ instead of copyrighted content that we do everything in our power to protect.
Think about what a conversation is for a second. When you say something, we can’t control what happens to it. If you give advice or tell a joke to some friends, a few might pass it onto their friends. They may even change it a bit. The chances are you won’t be credited for the advice or laugh. How often do you tell a joke and give credit to the person you heard it from?
I’m not saying we should be happy that pirates steal our creative content. What I am saying is that instead of getting angry and fighting it, we should just accept that we can’t beat piracy and instead should embrace it. What is important is that you use the ‘conversations’ to build your brand and compete with the pirates.
The internet not only levels the playing field, it also spreads the wealth about, so that it’s not just earned by a select elite group of individuals and companies. The internet allows authors with average ability to earn a living from their books, music, videos, etc.
Instead of fighting movie, music, software, ebook and web content piracy, we should adapt and change the business model. If we embrace piracy as a business model, traditional business models can adapt and compete with it. If we don’t, then the pirates will laugh all the way to the bank, like many do in China and other developing countries.
Name any major movie in the last few years and it’s been available on DVD on the day of release – in China and other developing countries. By fighting piracy, the movie studios have lost millions, even billions, of dollars in revenue.
Musicians Thrive in China Despite Rampant Piracy
Some musicians have accepted piracy and even embrace it. Piracy is rampant in China, yet the music industry is thriving. The music industry would have you think musicians don’t make a living in China where piracy is rampant. That can’t be further from the truth.
Some musicians have learned that the money is not in selling their music on CD, but in selling more concert tickets at higher prices. The pirated music is merely a promotional tool and acts as a loss-leader.
Brazilian Music Embraces Piracy
In Brazil, the Tecnobrega music scene is on fire thanks to musicians embracing piracy. They don’t just look the other way, they actively encourage it. Musicians burn their own CDs and beg street vendors to sell them without giving the musicians a cut of the profits. They also upload MP3s online and give their music away to DJs. It’s allowed many more musicians to make a decent living from music than via the traditional business model. It also means more Tecnobrega music is being produced.
Pirates Fill a Need in the Market
Movie piracy exists and profits because movie studios don’t fill the need demanded by customers. Instead of spending $200 million making one movie, maybe they could spend a fraction of that and in return offer cheaper movie tickets to consumers. There must be a price point where people are willing to fork out money to go watch a movie or buy a DVD instead of buying a poor quality pirated copy.
Consumers also want to be able to watch a movie how, when and where they want. But the movie studios insist on controlling distribution. Being a parent I now mostly watch the latest movies on pay TV. But even then it’s usually 6-12 months after the movie has hit the theaters. If the movie studios gave me the option to watch newly released movies in my own home, I would gladly pay for the privilege. This is more about lifestyle, less about cost. But the movie studios don’t seem to get that. Pirates do get it and are profiting from it.
Even internet marketing gurus are realizing that it’s better to embrace piracy than fight it. Instead of charging people for newsletters and ebooks, they’re giving them away for free. Once they build up a loyal following, they sell high priced marketing seminar tickets to those followers.
Internet piracy is here to stay. Accept it. Embrace it. Adapt your business model to compete against it, or die fighting it.
I finish by offering a quote by a wise man you may have heard of, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin.
Michael Wong is the editor of Mike’s Marketing Tools, which offers the original AdWords Wrapper and the new Keyword Tool. Michael has over a decade of experience in the internet industry, during which he founded two companies, sold a website to a SoftBank funded start-up, wrote one of the first ebooks on SEO, and generated millions of dollars in affiliate sales.