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Space for Rent: Not all things digital are the same



A week or so ago I came across a blog post that made some very facile comparisons between e-book piracy and other forms of digital piracy. But like many anti-piracy advocates the argument boiled down to, “Piracy is bad, ummkay!” while completely ignoring the fact that the only thing these different forms of media share is that they are available in digital form.

That is it.

They are not the same.

Or should I say, they do not share the same market. Each product fulfills a different function and comes from an unique market perspective. TV, movies, music and books each have their own niche in the larger media world. Each one is created and marketed in a specific way and the piracy of each product reflects the wants and needs of the markets according to the product and the marketing.

Take the music industry. Many artist encourage piracy, while others are against it. The diving line is whether or not the artist in question is signed to a record label or they own a record label. Why? Because artist who are signed to a record label hardly see any profits from record sales. Almost all the profits go to the label, whether or not the artist wrote, composed or organized the music. At best a record deal gives them some pocket change and above all else, exposure which they can translate to bigger concert venues/public appearances where they get a bigger cut of ticket sales. The more people listen to and become fan of their music, the more likely they will buy concert tickets. But for the record companies, which make money every time some licenses the music or buys a record, piracy bites into their pockets.

Movie studios crave big opening weekends, but if you look closely at the numbers, they show a different picture. Your average summer mega movie, loaded with special effects and $20 million dollar guest appearance (a tenth of the movie overall cost on one actor when the movie costs over $200 million) need to gross over $200 million in the opening weekend. The key is “gross” not “net”. That means total ticket sales, not the actual profits, which should be significant but nowhere near the necessary amount for the movie to break even. A big opening weekend turns the movie into a “block buster” which then turns into extended sales at home and abroad, and maximizes the appeal of DVD/Blue-Ray sales.  It is the smell of success that builds and sustains franchises, where the real money is made. Yet a casual look at secondary markets shows that movies that cost a fraction of the average the summer block buster can go from a total write-off to earning two to three times their allotted production budgets in a opening weekend but since the overall numbers  are not as big as their bigger cousins, they tend to be quickly forgotten, until Oscar night rolls along.

Piracy bites into the digital after-market sales for movies, but many times most of these sales occur in places where the movie in question has been delayed, heavily censored or simply not shown at all. For the local audience the only way they can see the movie at all is through a pirated DVD. Add to this the expensive gimmicks added to many movies (3D, I’m looking at you) that jack up the cost of the product without improving the quality there in, and you can see that the pirated copy is a better value than the original product.

E-books have a very different market. Either they, like DVD/Blue-Ray, an after market sale (print being the primary market) or are made by self-published authors.  Self-publishers have to make a lot of upfront investments without the deep pockets of established distributors, similar to indie movie makers. They hope to make big, but most barely recover their losses and are planning long range, trying to establish a brand that will grow over time. Piracy of the original documents can wipe out any return on investments on early installments and make it impossible for many authors to break out. Yet, some authors also play the “exposure” card, banking on the fact that like a borrowed copy from a friend or library, if the writing is good enough, the individual will buy a copy of the present or future publications from the same author.

As you can see, making facile comparisons based on the words, “digital” or “electronic” to push back against piracy is not wrong, but down right stupid. Defend your rights by understanding your market niche instead of making blanket statements that simply show your ignorance.


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