Why Some People Steal Content

Outside U.S., digital piracy not just easy, but often necessary

PHILADELPHIA—Before a business trip to the U.S., I wanted a copy of the film Veronica Guerin, a journalistic biopic starring Cate Blanchett, to show my journalism students in my stead. My university library did not carry the film, so I turned to Amazon.com for a digital copy. None available. Netflix, which won’t stream content in most places outside the U.S., wasn’t an option. I haven’t been able to buy any iTunes content outside the U.S. for several months, so Apple was out, too. I told my research assistant to just show the students All the President’s Men instead.

I teach journalism ethics, so I didn’t download a pirated copy of the 2003 film, but it would be hard to blame another global content seeker for doing so.

Twenty-first century content providers like to complain that webizens around the world, and many of the governments that provide their broadband infrastructure, do not respect copyright laws, but they rarely confess that piracy often yields content that can’t be obtained any other way.

“[I]t’s true that some people steal movies, TV shows, e-books, and other digital paraphernalia just because they’re there, but many people steal them because they’re not there, at least not offered by the people who create and sell them,” New York Times writer Nick Bilton wrote in his book I Live in the Future & Here’s How it Works. “[M]ovie distributors and others are missing an opportunity (and perhaps encouraging piracy) by declining to make varied formats available much more quickly and at a fair price,” Bilton added.

He’s right, and his words are even more applicable to content outside the U.S., especially in developing countries.

I was in Jordan as recently as 2009, and iTunes had not yet been configured to sell content in that country. Granted, plenty of Jordanian Internet users won’t pay Apple for content, but this is true anywhere, and iTunes and the artists it carries were missing out on business from people like me, who just wanted a few extra 99-cent songs conveniently added to an iPod to pass time in Amman taxis.

I’m fully comfortable estimating that there are millions upon millions of digital movies, songs, music videos, TV series, e-books, and other content units that cannot be legally purchased or rented from many dots on the globe. Often the only alternative to piracy is to buy a physical copy of a CD or DVD on, say, Amazon.com, and have it shipped abroad to one’s international location, which is neither affordable nor timely, and there is often no guarantee that the item will actually arrive (something that was true in Egypt even before the revolution).

“The iPod and iTunes proved that we’ll pay,” Bilton wrote, “if the price is right and the experience is special enough”—that is, if the content is pleasantly simple to purchase and carry off.

Indefensible piracy does exist, of course. Microsoft has legitimate grievances against the Chinese government for ignoring theft of its software—programs which are made easily available for purchase online. Jerry Bruckheimer, though, who produced Veronica Guerin, has no right to complain that some people around the world aren’t paying to view his films.

The World Intellectual Property Organization sponsored a copyright treaty in the 1990s, signed by dozens of nations around the world. Although the treaty contains pretty language on the “need to maintain a balance between the rights of authors and the larger public interest, particularly education, research and access to information,” the agreement is primarily concerned with restricting access to content. So many content providers devote greater energy to restricting access to their creations than readying affordable content for audiences. NBC/Universal would rather threaten YouTube with litigation if they don’t pull down a clip from Saturday Night Live than devote greater resources to search engine optimization so Google results more directly usher SNL fans to their desired sketches.

I was in Cairo during the 2010 Winter Olympics and I downloaded an NBC iPhone app which promised live coverage of the games. When I engaged the app I was informed I could not watch the Olympics—the most global assembly on earth—outside the U.S. The app was free, but I would have gladly paid $10 or $15 for live, mobile access to Olympics coverage in Egypt. I’m not sure who was ultimately responsible for this decision or who specifically suffered from it (in the end I paid nothing and didn’t watch a single event in Vancouver or any ads pitched by promoters), but money was lost.

It is true that money is being lost to digital piracy, but plenty is also lost to narrow thinking. Moral indignation won’t counteract global piracy; only convenient and rationally priced offerings will. One commenter on a blog post that Bilton references in his book put it brilliantly: “Lesson to content providers: You make it easy to own, or we’ll make it easy to own.”

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin Tags: , , , , ,