Piracy: Free Advertising and The Best Defense Against Obscurity

Hollywood, publishing

Guys, I’m giving you permission to pirate stuff.

This isn’t gonna stand up in a court of law. You can still be arrested or sued or fined or whatever the fuck they do.

But I’m giving you moral permission. And this from someone who derives her entire income from the shit you wanna pirate: T.V. and movies.

Here’s why this is still a good deal for me: the enemy for anyone who makes stuff, and who pays her rent and buys sunflower seed butter at Trader Joe’s off of making stuff, is obscurity.

The less obscure the stuff I make — or the stuff I receive residual checks for — the better.

Put another way — the more people who have heard of the crazy sex scene at the end of Sons of Anarchy Episode 306 — the more people talking about it, passing it around, trading it peer-to-peer, telling their friends some of whom don’t know how to pirate, or who have so much money it’s not worth the hassle, or have a moral compunction against it and find legal ways of obtaining the show they’ve heard so much about, partly from friends who may have heard about it from friends who watched it for free – the more of those wonderful god-sent green envelopes full of money turn up in my mailbox.

Piracy is good for me, not bad.

A lot of people I work with in Hollywood don’t realize this yet. They will soon.

I think it’s easier for me to see this because I started in books.

As a novelist, I know that the more exposure a book gets, the better for the book. People keep making the argument that those who “steal” (pirate) materials will never buy those same materials — that’s a sale that’s lost forever. That’s not true. Sometimes people download something because they want to make sure they’re going to like it, then go to see it in the theatre to get the full experience. Sometimes people get started on a TV series via piracy, then love it, and wind up buying the full series. Or in the most likely scenario — the pirate likes or dislikes what they saw and talks to their friends about it on their twitter and their tumblr and their facebook and their blog. Isn’t this the holy grail? How much are studios currently paying to achieve this? Considering it can cost as much as $100 million to market a movie nowadays — and this is free — why not try this?

50 SHADES OF GREY is a good example of this strategy succeeding. First the manuscript was traded freely between friends who knew each other on a Twilight fansite. Then the author E.L. James self-published it — and it was still traded freely between friends and via piracy. Then E.L. James sold 50 SHADES OF GREY to Vintage — and it was still traded freely and pirated. In the first six weeks after that sale, the book has sold over 10 million copies. Did piracy hurt sales of 50 SHADES OF GREY? No.

American TV shows spend literally 10 times as much on marketing, advertising and promotion as they do to make the actual show (at least the ones I’ve worked on do). I want to get my work in front of as many eyeballs as possible. So word can trickle up through the culture, the way it has for 50 SHADES OF GREY.

This is how much I believe in the power of piracy as free advertising: when I have movies or TV shows coming out, I will personally upload them to bittorrent sites myself.

This is a time of technological change. Whenever consumer behaviors change because of new technologies, there’s always upset and market correction.

Steven Spielberg was outraged about VCRs. That seems loony now, right? And turns out VCRs only made him and all of Hollywood even more money.

Video on Demand (VOD) is already here, and already the desired means of consuming media for most people. Why Hollywood is resisting the ways their own customers want to consume their products feels like companies that are way too big for their own good thinking they can stop change from happening and control the future.

Piracy is a free focus group to instruct corporations on consumer behavior. A huge waving banner saying “THIS RIGHT HERE – this is how we want to watch your movie and T.V. shows — instantly, whevever and whenever we want, without a lot of hassle. Give us a way.”

This WSJ article comparing the early days of digital music to the early days of ebooks finds that “actually selling things to early adopters is wise”. Music and publishing both proved that consumers behave how we want. No amount of finger-wagging or lawsuits or criminal charges will stop people from doing what feels good in the moment. You can’t stop progress because your business hasn’t changed with the times. What inevitably happens is the times change, consumer behavior changes — and your business either dries up or smart new upstarts scramble to give the consumers what they want, then you realize you have to change and copy them.

Don’t be dumb. Don’t stand around arguing about morality while the dinosaurs go extinct.

This book influenced my thoughts about price, piracy and the possibility of giving stuff away and still making money. “FREE: The Future of a Radical Price” by Chris Anderson

78 thoughts on “Piracy: Free Advertising and The Best Defense Against Obscurity

  1. Piracy MIGHT benefit no-name wanna-be’s early in their career by increasing exposure.  However, the same results can be obtained by voluntarily giving away free copies or releasing your work under a creative commons license.   Piracy is a huge negative for established professionals (George R. R. Martin doesn’t need publicity, he needs sales!).   If you want to support yourself by writing, SOMEONE has to pay for your work.   Piracy only “helps” now because while the pirates are useless parasites, they may inadvertently expose your work to more honest customers.   Every day, more customers decide to quit paying for their books, and join the carefree pirate ranks, taking your future earnings with them.

    If you want to bless the pirates to take YOUR work without compensation, feel free.  Release it for free, place it public domain, give it away if you’re so inclined.  But PLEASE don’t presume to know what’s best for the industry, or speak for any other authors.  Most of them disagree with you.

  2. You end this post basically by taking a huge dump on morality and the moral reasons people give why they think piracy is unjust; but the reasons you yourself give are business reasons about why you think it makes good economic sense to not wage war on piracy.  (And your main reason here is the same as before, so far as I can tell: i.e. when piracy works, it amounts to free word of mouth advertising that can drive sales.)

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine if you prefer to restrict a discussion on your blog to the business arena.  I personally tend to agree with a good deal of what you have to say in that arena.  But for the sake of clarity alone I think we should treat the moral and business aspects of this discussion as distinct (though perhaps not ultimately independent in any absolute sense), at least until someone furnishes an argument for placing them in the same boat.  And if you prefer simply to dismiss the whole moral side of the discussion, then you just aren’t being reasonable about what kinds of issues are in play.

    That said, the central moral point here is very simple: piracy is a form of theft, and theft is wrong because it unjustly deprives others of their property, or their labour, or their earnings, etc.  Note that this is simply a consequence of some prior ethical theory, either our ordinary folk theory or our more robust formal theories.  It’s not a dilemma at all: sitting in front of your computer deciding whether to download a song or movie is not a moral choice because if you accept that theft is wrong in the first place then logically, taking that digital content is also wrong.  This choice is not a genuine dilemma because the available alternatives do not meet the minimum criterion for being a moral dilemma.  The one alternative “download the digital content” is clearly wrong, while the other alternative “do not download it” is clearly right, SO LONG AS YOU ALREADY ACCEPT THAT THEFT IS MORALLY WRONG.  Expressed in syllogistic form:

    (1) Theft is morally wrong.
    (2) Digital piracy is a form of theft.
    (3) Therefore digital piracy is morally wrong.

    So for you persuasively to dismiss the claim in (3) that piracy is morally wrong, you must either come up with some reason why the (folk and/or formal) theories which prohibit theft in the first place are mistaken, or show why piracy is somehow not theft.  On the latter point, I don’t see any distinction between piracy and theft that is not simply a verbal difference.  So the only route left is for you to object to (1).

    The point that piracy can and does benefit artists is irrelevant to the above argument, so I happily grant you it.  The fact that piracy is capable of generating some good would not make it less wrong to pirate content.  Perhaps you are simply not interested in discussing the moral issues concerning piracy; that’s certainly your prerogative.  But do not dismiss them out of hand and then present your case as though it were the last word on the relevance of moral considerations to this discussion.  It just makes it sound like you have not thought the issue through very carefully.

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