Saturday, February 21, 2004

"Aye, Matey!"

If there's one thing that the music and film industries need to realize, it's that the war is already over.

For the past few years, they've been trying to fight against the rising wave of piracy and file-swapping that they claim is destroying their business, but to little avail. A volley of attacks have been launched against Internet Service Providers, file-swapping services, and, most recently, end-users themselves. Still, success in stemming the flow of bootleg material across the vastness of the Internet has remained elusive. So far, each assault has only served to teach their opponents how to better hide behind the anonymity of the 'Net and how to develop more efficient methods to "rip" and "swap" everything from 80's music and video games to full-length feature films still showing in the theatres.

The futility has become most evident recently with the propaganda we are now subjected to during the "Coming Attractions"... Who hasn't had to sit and listen to some poor guy go on and on about how hard he works to make a movie and how it takes money out of his pocket each time someone downloads a copy? Come on! This isn't even a valid argument... The people who make the films don't suffer because all they do is raise the prices. Actually, it's the paying public who hurts in the long run. Remember when it only cost 5 bucks to see a movie? Yeah, me too... barely. And here's the funniest part about it all... The ever-increasing prices are only going to encourage people to download more! It's high time for the music and film industries to admit defeat on this front and try to salvage what they can.

A quick word before I continue... I am not promoting the piracy and/or sharing of copyright material. I think the debate over the moral and legal standpoints of this topic has raged on long enough. Instead, I'd rather focus on where to go from here.

Why do most people download music instead of buying it? Why spend hours getting "50 First Dates" from the Internet instead of just going to the cineplex? The real thing is just too expensive, that's why. It's not because the common man (or woman, for those of you who adhere to political correctness) is lawless by nature, thumbing his (or her) nose at authority. And it's not because they want to see the artists suffer in spite of their efforts. It's all about money. Why continue to keep up with rising prices year after year when "reasonable facsimiles" can be obtained for free? And, as I mentioned above, it's only going to get worse as the prices are pushed through the roof to make up for losses due to bootlegging. So, what is the answer then? While I firmly believe that it is impossible to stop piracy, I also think it can be slowed down by reducing the need to copy and share.

A close friend of mine and I were talking about this very topic over a year ago, and he put forth an idea that I thought was brilliant. So, of course, I'll tell you all about it and, even though I've just given the credit to him, you'll always remember that you read it here first and think of me as the genius. I love it when a plan comes together...

This battle didn't begin with Kazaa and the millions of people who opened their hard drives to each other to share the latest movies... Nor did it begin with Napster and the countless MP3s that flooded the Internet. In fact, this goes back further than the Internet, further digital media, further even than the home computer itself. For as long as there has been art, there has been someone to copy it. And for as long as there has been someone to copy it, there has been someone who would settle for a copy over the original. So, if this is true, how is it that painters, sculptors, and authors today still manage to survive? Why hasn't piracy destroyed them by now, especially considering how much longer they've been subjected to it? This is why: They found a way to embrace it and profit from it.

Very few of us can afford a painting by the likes of Picasso. To actually own a piece sculpted by Michelangelo is unthinkable. To read a book written in the hand-writing of Charles Dickens himself would be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Yet, the works of these three are readily available to any man, woman, or child who wishes to experience them... thanks to copies. The reproductions of these great works have done nothing to diminish the originals. Without question, they aren't as good, but for those who can't or won't afford the real thing, they provide an excellent alternative.

The proposal put forth by my friend was a simple one... Offer two levels of purchase for the consumer. For those who prefer to own "the best", continue to provide high-quality CDs and DVDs with all the fancy packaging and artwork. For those who don't find this necessary or who can live without the "perfect sound", offer music and movies in a cheaper, slightly inferior form. Strip out things like a flashy jewel case, booklet insert, or "DVD extras" and offer a trimmed down version. Allow music-lovers a way to purchase 30 or 40 MP3s (of their choice) burned onto a personalized CD right in the music store. Then, offer these alternatives at a price that would make them attractive and people wouldn't be so compelled to download the stuff from the 'Net.

Sure, there will always be people who would rather spend 16 hours downloading something they could pay 3 dollars for, but they are few and far between. Also, since file-sharing relies heavily on lots of people doing it, eventually even these die-hards would have to opt for the legal alternative.

I know this may sound a little Utopian right now... And there are complexities that I haven't (and won't) touch on. But it's the beginning of a plan. More importantly, it's the beginning of a plan that has everyone's best interests in mind. It's not just a way to control the illegal spread of copyright material, and it's not just a way to lower prices... It's both. Not to mention the fact that, if artists are faced with the need to convince us to buy the "full price" version, we may see a marked increase in the quality of products offered. In the end, everyone wins.

So, maybe I was a little hasty in claiming that the war is already over... But we certainly are in the final stages. If the pieces are played correctly, we'll have a stalemate that will let everybody walk away from the table happy.
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