Illegal file sharing is back in the news, as the Motion Picture Association took to the courts in an attempt to force internet service providers to cut off access to streaming sites that facilitate illegal streaming of content.
This comes a couple of years after similar moves by the Irish Recorded Music Association (IRMA), who attempted to block sites that facilitated illegal downloading.
Site blocking didn’t work for IRMA and it won’t work for the MPA
IRMA’s action was against torrent sites which facilitated illegally downloading, like the Pirate Bay, while the MPA’s action focuses on illegal streaming – which has become more popular with the advent of plug-in streaming devices for TVs and improved internet speeds. What they have in common is that both try to cut off the supply by targeting the websites that facilitate digital piracy.
The problem here is obvious. The legal system moves slowly, while the internet moves incredibly quickly. As soon as a website is taken down, a new one sprouts up in its place, and if a court blocks access to a website, as has happened previously in Ireland, the measures are easily circumvented by using a proxy server, rendering the whole process a bit pointless.
Digital piracy, despite previous attempts to stop it, has continued to grow. I have no doubt that the outcome of this case will be no different.
Why are people choosing to consume content illegally?
Of course, organisations like IRMA and the MPA are perfectly entitled to protect their businesses and their copyright material, but they should also start asking why more and more people are choosing to consume content illegally over official, paid-for channels.
The debate around digital piracy tends to frame offenders as thieves who blatantly refuse to pay for content, criminals essentially. Remember the “you wouldn’t steal a car” ad from the old DVD start-up menus?
This is not the case, despite the arguments made by IRMA, the MPA and others.
Research suggests people don’t really have a problem with paying for content. The problem they have is with access to content when and how they want.
Consumers aren’t willing to wait and wait
In an era of “on-demand” media, consumers aren’t willing to wait months to see a film if they’ve missed a cinema release, nor are they willing to wait to see a TV show that airs in the US months before it arrives here, just because that’s how studios maximise their revenue.
This area of the digital piracy debate is a “means of distribution” argument. The argument goes that the means of distribution of record labels, movie studios, and TV networks are outdated, and illegal downloading is a reaction to the protection of the hugely lucrative “windowed release” business model and geographical preferences that certain markets get over others.
Digital piracy is a backlash
The standard formula for a movie release is that it will appear in the cinema first, maybe in an exclusive cinema chain or certain regions before others.
It will then be released on DVD/Blu-Ray/digital download a few months later, sometimes exclusively with certain retailers or services, before being aired on pay-to-view TV, and then finally on free-to-air TV. The process can take years, and maximises revenue making potential.
Digital piracy is a backlash against the control studios exert on content in order to maximise their revenues. The evidence supports this. The most recent comprehensive research carried out on this in Ireland showed that 42% of people who illegal stream content do so because the content is not available anywhere else.
The second highest illegally downloaded TV show in Ireland, Game of Thrones, is only available in 46% of Irish homes. Foreign TV shows and movies are also much more likely to be illegally consumed than Irish made original content.
That’s because Irish content is much more easily available legally through services like the RTÉ Player, although it’s free.
An archaic business model
Paid for on-demand services like Netflix and Spotify have surged in popularity in recent years, and there has also been a decrease in illegal downloading.
Rather than concentrating on trying to preserve what is clearly an archaic business model, TV and movie studios should take a look at themselves and ask why people aren’t paying for content. It is not because people don’t want to pay for their content. It’s because they can’t get what they want, when they want through legal channels.
The sooner they realise this, the sooner they can modernise and adopt practices like universal release, where films or TV shows are available everywhere – in cinemas, on-demand TV, Netflix, DVD, digital download all at the same time, and the sooner they can stop their decline.
Gavin has an MA in Public Affairs and Political Communication from DIT. His dissertation focused on illegal downloading and industry attempts to combat digital piracy. He currently works for the Green Party/Comhaontas Glas. Follow him on Twitter @gavnugent.