SOPA and PIPA appear to be defeated for now. With both popular and legislative support waning for the two bills, this seems to be a good time to open up a new discussion regarding the battle against online piracy and copyright enforcement in the digital age. And while it's becoming increasingly clear that the long-standing model for protecting copyright has become obsolete (that's a topic for another day), I've come up with a list of five steps our industry can take to protect our work.
1. Stop pretending the internet isn't a thing.
One of the most peculiar paradoxes in the modern entertainment industry is the bizarre relationship it has with the internet. On the one hand, we've been among the first to truly realize the capability of the network of connected users in disseminating messages. Our marketing departments expend a massive amount of time, energy and money spreading online awareness of our products, and they’ve been very successful at it. At the same time, we've been extremely reluctant to acknowledge that more and more people prefer to get their content online. Instead of treating the internet as a drain on our revenues, we should be seeking new ways to provide content to our audiences using the internet. Recently, the creator of Modern Family complained about ABC putting his show on Hulu because online views don't figure into our ratings figures. To me, this seems like an enormous wasted opportunity to replace the antiquated sample-based Nielsen Ratings system (seriously, has anyone you know ever met anyone with a Nielsen box in their home?) with a system that gives us hard numbers about our audience. Netflix recently lost their contract with Starz because the cable provider's parent network demanded that Netflix create a two-tiered subscription service (á la the dying cable industry) and Netflix, quite rightly, refused. Again, this is a wasted opportunity for content creators to realistically ascertain what people are watching, when, and for how long. Our industry continues to ignore the potential of the internet at its peril. There's no denying that the internet will be the dominant information and content source of the future (as if it isn't already), and our insistence on holding fast to the old model instead of embracing and shaping the new ones is asinine. Remember, we also believed that the VCR would destroy our industry. Look how that turned out.
2. Make all content affordable, accessible and available.
Our generation doesn’t want to wait for anything. We won't drive to the video store to rent a movie, as the demise of Blockbuster has proven. Our industry needs to acknowledge this and turn it into an asset, rather than denying it. We can do this by putting everything we make online, and at an affordable price. The iTunes store, Hulu, Netflix and the ever-increasing number of other ways to legally acquire or view content online are a good start, but we're nowhere near where we should be on this. As soon as a TV show airs, or a movie comes out anywhere in the world, it's available on the filesharing networks. This is another missed opportunity on our part. Instead of trying to force our customers to watch TV on TV by staggering or limiting the availability of online content, we should be making it available at the same time (or before) the pirates do. Give people the opportunity to acquire content legally and they will. We can monetize by selling advertising (there's no good reason why TV ads are worth as much as they are while online ads are so cheap) or charging subscription fees to users. We can sell content as cheap rentals or to own for a higher price. Television was successful because it brought entertainment to us. The internet will be successful as a means for selling content because it brings us the entertainment we want. The old model of watching whatever is on when it's on is undeniably dead. If we take better advantage of the instant gratification and choice the internet provides, we'll see people embrace it and benefit from it as an industry.
3. If we insist on sticking with the old model of content distribution, create content that demands to be seen when it's on and on a big screen.
The content people watch on TV when it premieres is largely the kind of content they don't want to be the last to see. Sports programs are a great example of this: HD presentations of games are one of the few reasons many of my friends still pay for cable. Likewise shows like Lost, Mad Men and True Blood. But the near-dominance of mundane reality programming and interchangeable procedurals and awful sitcoms don't make people want to bend their schedules to watch. If you missed Lost, you felt somehow behind on the world, whereas Law & Order: Altoona or Extreme Shed Makeover will only demand the immediate attention of shut-ins and the kind of people that went to sideshows 80 years ago. Give people high quality entertainment that makes them feel like a part of something and they'll watch it when it's broadcast.
This goes double for the movie industry. The reason 3D was exciting for twenty minutes was that it reinvigorated an industry that has forgone quality content in favor of tired, "reliable" crap. People want spectacle on the big screen, and I don't mean a live-action Smurfs movie. People want exciting, entertaining stories and attractive, engaging characters, not the latest Judd Apatow drivel starring actors that look like us doing the same stuff we do every day of our lives or half-assed adaptations of old comic books we stopped reading twenty years ago. If we're going to insist on charging $15 for a ticket, we should be using the time of our audience in a way that doesn’t make them feel ripped off. Avatar is the highest-grossing movie in history for a reason: it created a world unlike any we had seen before and made us feel like a part of it. That's what we should be aspiring to.
4. Flood the pirate market with unreliable content.
Of course, Avatar is also the most pirated movie of all time, begging the question: If a movie is popular, won't that also make the movie popular with pirates? It seems that despite our efforts to discourage people from pirating content, we've made little headway in stemming the tide of piracy. There's an easy solution to this, and it seems so obvious that I can't believe we've spent so much time bullying the pirate sites instead of simply making pirating more trouble than it's worth. All we need to do to stop people from using pirate sites is make them unreliable. For example: Create a torrent of Avatar that stops halfway through, or has pink and purple lines moving across the screen every twenty seconds, or includes 20 minutes of footage from The Smurfs. Then, using the torrent technology that we're already using at the studios to illegally download Sons of Anarchy, upload the file en masse to the torrent sites. Pay attention to what's popular on the torrent sites and create defective files of that content. Then, set up a server farm at every studio that seeds bunk torrents of popular content over a period of time, increasing the popularity of those torrents over the genuine ones. I guarantee that if we did this for three months, people would lose patience with the pirate sites and just go buy the content on iTunes instead. I can say this because it's what happened for me. I used torrents for years (since I got tired of edonkey, if that means anything to you) and never bought any content legally. Then, like most good things, people found out about it. As a result, the torrent sites became increasingly flooded with poor quality rips, viruses and other undesirable material. It became more of a pain in the ass to find a decent torrent than it was to just go buy the movie on iTunes. So, I stopped. It's been over two years since I illegally downloaded a movie or TV show (I've still ripped the occasional song from the web when I COULDN’T FIND IT LEGALLY), and I have no plans of ever going back to torrenting. If we spent the same amount of energy on this strategy that we have on trying to shut down torrents only to have five more spring up in their place, we'd at least reduce online piracy to the small number of super tech-savvy individuals who do it out of spite. Which leads me to my final point:
5. Stop making the pirates look like Robin Hood and making ourselves look Prince John.
Guess what? Every time we sue a mom for $1.92 million for downloading 24 songs, or sue a woman who doesn’t have internet access for allegedly downloading movies, or sue an entire country for not acquiescing to our demands that they institute our piracy blocking provisions, or author legislation that damages the fundamental architecture of the internet while engaging in piracy ourselves, or make up bogus statistics about how much piracy is costing our industry while raking in record profits and paying executives and above-the-line people exorbitant salaries, people find out about it on the internet. And they don't like it. And they don't like us for it. They're already annoyed at how much content costs, between movie ticket prices and cable subscription costs, and they know how much money we make. So why do we insist on making ourselves even less sympathetic by treating our customers like criminals when they've already payed for the content? Why do we keep making shows shorter and advertisements louder on the cable channels they pay for, or playing ads for twenty minutes before movies after they've already shelled out $15 for the ticket? For an industry that created the most successful advertising gimmick in the history of the world, we sure are making ourselves look like assholes. And that only ends up empowering the pirates, making them into Davids against our Goliath instead of the thieves they actually are. How inept are we that we're losing the PR war against piracy to the people that are actually stealing from us?
This is also a pretty easy - if somewhat painful - fix. First, announce an amnesty for all pirates before today. Forgive the people that have stolen from us in the past. This will make us look like compassionate people, giving the benefit of the doubt to our customers and demonstrating that we don't view them as the criminal scum we've depicted them as for so long. The goodwill we'll receive for this move will more than make up for any previous lost revenues. Second, stop trying to force legislation onto the internet that even we don't abide by. Surprise surprise: Torrenting is rife at the studios - and in congress. We're stealing from ourselves! And how many of us watch screeners instead of going to the movies or renting the DVD? Isn't that also cutting into our profits? If we're not going to pay to see content, why should we expect the public to? Third, institute an industry-wide pay cut for upper-level executives and above-the-line talent. Listening to millionaire movie stars complain about how piracy is hurting their profits isn't something the public is going to respond to with any great outpouring of sympathy. We'd immediately reduce the cost of production, which would allow us to lower ticket prices and reduce advertising while maintaining profit margins. There is absolutely no reason why Will Smith should make $20 million for acting in a movie when our audiences are struggling just to pay their mortgages, and they know it. Put a better face on our industry, and people will be less likely to feel ok about stealing from us.
Ultimately, in my opinion, the overreaching provisions included in SOPA and PIPA seem to suggest that our industry is concerned less with piracy and more with control over content. We've been the sole providers of entertainment for so long that we've become unsustainable, opening the doors for us to be eclipsed by more efficient, customer-oriented methods of providing content to audiences. But that's also a discussion for another day. For now, if we hope to make a serious effort to inhibit the growth of online piracy, I think the strategies I've outlined here will be more effective - and less destructive - than buying legislators and forcing our own demands onto our customers.