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