Mar 172007

In the dim and distant past when iPods were something in SciFi films that hatched some nasty alien, and the only people who thought we might be using our computers for music were dangerously unstable visionaries there used to be a big issue called ‘software protection’. The software publishers had noticed that their software was being copied rather than paid for.

Being under the impression that every single illegal copy represented a lost sale (it isn’t, but that’s another story), they hired geeks to make copying software difficult. All of a sudden all the floppy disks (yes that long ago) that software came on were written with all sorts of funky tricks to make copying them difficult.

What happened ? Well the pirates came up with tricky ways of copying the disks and even removing the protection completely. Essentially the software protection schemes did not exist for them … in fact the more geeky ones enjoyed the challenge!

As for legitimate consumers, they started having problems. Those few who had hard disks suddenly had a collection of software packages that they could not copy onto the hard disk. Those who failed to treat their disks delicately found themselves unable to run software that often cost hundreds of pounds. It even grew to a point where the disk protection was so extreme that you found even a new disk did not work reliably.

A personal story from the 1980s … when the game Elite was launched for the BBC Microcomputer, I took some of my very limited money at the time and bought a copy. The game was brilliant but the disk protection was so extreme that I could not be sure of loading the game at any time. This experience ruined the game for me and I took it back. A few months later I ‘obtained’ an illegal copy and carried on playing it.

Do I feel guilty about breaking copyright law in this case ? No. I tried to do the right thing, but the software protection was so obnoxious to me as a legitimate consumer that I was encouraged to seek out an illegal copy.

Eventually after a long campaign, most of the larger software companies gave up software protection as a bad joke and everybody (probably including the software companies) breathed a sigh of relief.

Roll on a few years to now and look to digital music … a whole alphabet soup of different file formats … MP3, OGG, AAC, WMA, FLAC, MIDI … and that is just a few from the software that I run on my iPod. Some of these digital music formats have digital rights management and some do not … and the ones that do have it do not have the same one.

So I ‘buy’ a track from an online store for my smartphone which works quite well providing I keep the music there. Move it to my iPod and the iPod does not know it is music. Move it to a Windows machine, and it says that you’re not allowed to play it here. Some of these digital music formats have digital rights management and some do not … and the ones that do have it do not have the same one.

Notice something similar ? Again those who want to steal something will come up with a way to do it, and those legitimate consumers have to put up with restrictions that the pirates do not. Some of these digital music formats have digital rights management and some do not … and the ones that do have it do not have the same one.

We move onto films, where the same thing is happening. Ever notice whilst watching a DVD that you have to sit through 5-10 minutes of some stupid video telling you not to be naughty and steal the DVD ? Very irritating to be told off for something that you are not doing … especially when you realise those who steal movies usually have hacked hardware so they can fast forward through those bits. And of course movie download sites are using DRM in much the same way as music … you can download the movie and play it once, or play it as many times as you like for a month, or it only works on your PlayStation3 (or something like that). All sorts of restrictions for the legitimate consumer.

And what about those who download films from the file sharing networks ? Well no restrictions of course. In fact you can sometimes even download films before they are in the cinema especially if you are in a strange place like the UK where apparently shipping a film suitable for showing in the cinema can take many months.

Most media companies have yet to learn something that most software companies learnt a long time ago … pirates will steal your content whatever you do, and punishing legitimate consumers for doing the right thing will encourage some to become pirates and is pretty daft anyway. If I were a large media company I would do the following :-

  • Get rid of DRM. It costs money, probably has a negligable effect on the problem and punishes legitimate consumers.
  • Make all the old content available for download in a high-quality media format that can play everywhere for an almost nominal sum … perhaps a £1 a movie. Put the address of the download site at the beginning of the film prominently for a minute or two. This becomes your advertisement to those who get a copy illegally … and some of them will spend a pound to get an obscure
    film they’ve heard is good and then become more likely to purchase downloads.
  • Stop making cinema releases in stages. If you really want to see an over-hyped film that you know is in the cinema in the US but you have to wait months to see it in your country, you are far more likely to download an illegal copy than otherwise. If you have seen that illegal copy (sometimes a low-quality recording from a camcorder in a cinema) you are less likely to spend money on the film again. Especially if it is really over-hyped.
  • Same thing for DVD releases. Release them simultaneously world-wide and make them region free (whatever the excuse, region encoding comes across to consumers as a way of ripping them off).
  • Normalise DVD prices as much as possible. Seeing the same product at different prices in different countries makes the consumer feel they’re being ripped off. And don’t make the sales tax excuse … some consumers are capable of calculating the difference that makes.
  • Make DVD prices as cheap as possible. When consumers get DVDs for free with our newspaper, they feel like they are getting ripped off when they pay £20 for one.

If consumers feel like they are getting ripped off by media companies, they are more likely to try ripping off the media companies.

It all comes down to one simple statement. Rather than trying to stop people stealing using methods that don’t really work (and punish the legitimate consumer), look into why consumers steal films and other media and come up with consumer-friendly methods to alleviate that problem.

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