When Piracy is Easy, How Do You Compete?

Popcorn Time is something that I’ve been hearing about for a while now but I’ve never really looked into. Effectively it’s a tool that gives you an easy to use User Interface to find Torrents for your favorite TV shows and movies. Torrents, by the way are a type of file and download methodology. Effectively you get tiny bits and pieces from a large number of different users across the internet. This makes it harder to track the individual files, prevents it from easily being removed from the web, and helps manage internet usage across the multiple users. In the days of Kazaa, you directly downloaded from a single peer, now you’re downloading from multiple users, so if one goes offline or reduces the bandwidth they are sending the file to you it has minimal impact.

Torrents are what’s called “piracy” and are on the pirate bay and any number of other sites that share those files. Since they do not have to follow strict contracting like Netflix, Comcast, Hulu, HBO, and other streaming services you have access to the movies you want whenever you want them. For instance, Netflix recently lost access to the Avengers, probably because of the cost of keeping in their library and Disney trying to create artificial scarcity of the legal product. You can find extremely high quality torrents out there to watch it if you can’t get it for free. In fact I’m sure it’s on Popcorn Time right now.

Because of these difference and the historic complexity and risks of downloading a torrent, Netflix had positioned itself as a way to prevent piracy. Now this might not be the case, as Netflix is beginning to see Popcorn Time as a legitimate threat to their business model. I’m not surprised that Netflix sees risk here and I think that this is a good thing for Netflix. It means they are expecting their business to be disrupted and that they can take proactive steps to address it.

What can they do to keep their business afloat and continue to fight piracy? Well, since they are essentially seen as a cash cow on two fronts – ISPs and Content producers (MPAA and TV companies), they need to clearly articulate the amount of piracy that was reduced once the content was put onto Netflix and then show the increase in piracy after the content was pulled from Netflix for contractual reason. If Netflix can’t afford to keep it on their network, then with an easy to use app like Popcorn Time, the content will be pirated, which means that any revenue artificial scarcity was hoping to drive or to be extracted from Netflix at an elevated price goes out the window and the content will still be consumed.

In some cases piracy will happen regardless, but if the trend continues were people are switching back and forth between cord cutting and going back to cable because of rising costs of apps, then apps like Popcorn Time will become more popular because they can completely replace Hulu, Amazon Prime Videos, HBO Go, Netflix, etc.. You could be a cord cutter with this and pay for one app to get your live sports and be good to go. Content producers will begin to lose out again, because they are trying to squeeze the companies that provide easy, relatively cheap access to their content. I’d rather not go back to that, but if my costs keep rising because the companies I choose to support can’t afford the content that I want, then I’d have no choice.

Did yesterday’s internet black out save the internet?

I’ve seen a lot of commentary about how the web may have been saved because of the internet’s “abuse of power.” How parts of the internet shut down for a day. I’m sure this impacted a great deal of people, may have actually hurt our economy a little bit. However, one day of action won’t save the internet.

I’ll agree it made a huge impact as support for SOPA/PIPA has plummeted. Yes, this round of attack by the MPAA and RIAA may have been twarted, but this is just the beginning of the fight for the internet. Ars Technica, has an excellent write up for a plan for how to address some of the concerns of copyright holders in a much better fashion. A manner which would not destroy the internet like SOPA/PIPA.

However, I think that this is a case of industrial policy legislation that is picking winners. In several blogs and posts at the Urban Times, I have written in favor of using some policies to enact changes of behavior. However, in these cases it’s because a novel technology isn’t being adopted that leads to benefits for the social good. In the case of copyright holders, these policies aren’t for the common good, but are being put into place to protect an aging business model that is not innovative. The policies I recommend are to help innovators compete against the status quo.

Data has shown that increasing the availability or decreasing the availability impacts the rate of piracy for television shows. Which indicates to me, policies should be striving to push companies to increase access to copyrighted material, not to go after pirating website. The responsibility for dealing with pirates should be with the copyright holder. They have the means to actually reduce piracy through reducing the amount of licensing fees and increasing accessibility.

We should be pushing our government leaders to put initiatives in places that require massive concessions from copyright holders, if they abuse their copyright position, including losing that copyright. Subscription services like Spotify and Pandora allow users to get access to content either free, with ads, or for a small price. However, these services don’t allow users to access everything. This leads to frustration. If I was able to listen to whatever on Spotify, there’d be no reason to pirate.

What does this mean? Well, we can celebrate the change in positions of congressional members, however this isn’t over yet. OPEN act may be the next step in this battle. Free internet should be our goal, free as in speech not beer. However, people are willing to pay and I think in this case, business models need to catch up with technology.

If I made video games, this is how I’d deal with Piracy

Piracy is something of a real issue. It can impact the livelihoods of artists as well as the big companies. However, the methods that companies go to when fighting piracy are extreme and infuriate end users. The people that listen to music or play games for the love of music or video games.

My friends over at KMBOD have written in the past about how horrible some of the Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems are on video games. These systems require continual verification that the game has actually been purchased. In some cases it makes the game unplayable or extremely difficult to play. In some cases the user must be online the entire time regardless of the type of game the user is playing. It makes sense for the game to be online if you’re playing multiplayer games, but if you’re playing a single version of the game why would you need to be online? Why should the game suddenly crash if you get disconnected from the internet? These types of things anger the gaming community and drive them away from specific titles and potentially entire publishing companies. Some publishing companies are Electronic Arts and Valve.

I don’t think that DRM is the right system to use. For one it’s easy to get around if you really want to and many players kind of look at DRM as a challenge something they should get around and publish online as a community service. It’s not just video games that do this, but also DVDs, Blu Ray and CD’s. In fact in the US it’s illegal under the DMCA to circumvent DRM.

So what would I do instead? Since there are a fair number of pretty easy distribution channels for video games now. There’s Steam, EA’s origin and a few other ones that I’m not really aware of. There’s also buying it from Amazon, Best Buy, Game Stop and a bunch of other stores. So access to the game is pretty easy. Price might be an issue, but for good games people are willing to pay a premium, just look at the sales of Skyrim and Modern Warfare 3. Huge blockbuster games. These changes are mostly for First Person Shooters, but similar type changes could apply for other types of video games, such as RPGs or strategy games.

Despite the ease of access people still pirate because they want to try before they drop $60 on a game. So what I’d do is make it as easy as possible to access both legally and illegally. I fully believe in the try before you buy model. However, for copies that weren’t installed from a CD or downloaded from an online distributor like Steam the game quality would be diminished. For instance many gamers complain about the number of frames per second for a game. Video is shot at 60 fps and the human eye can’t see much faster than that, but we can tell the difference if it’s much slower than that amount. In the illegal versions I would make the game run at 30 fps, but it would initially start at the 60 fps and over the course of a minute or two and have a little note flash that if you buy the game you can get the full 60 fps.

Another feature that gamers complain about is the perspective within the game (field of view FOV). They describe it as feeling like your playing with your head in the monitor. basically it’s restriction on peripheral vision. Again I would start the game out with full vision and then slowly move the POV into the “monitor” restricting the view and giving the paying customers an advantage over the pirate customers.

I would also make the user do less damage than their paying counter parts. This would reduce the number of kills and make the player less effective on the playing field and more likely to die and less likely to kill. Finally, the last thing I would do is to have a little pirate flag next to any player that didn’t legally purchase the game so all of the other players would know when some one hadn’t bought the game. In games where kill counts matter this could cause users to be banned from servers and reduce the ease access for playing.

None of these things would ruin the game to the point that some one wouldn’t want to play it. What it would do though is push people towards paying to be able to compete at the same level as everyone else.