Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but movie fans like to show their love for a great movie by stealing it, as data from TorrentFreak on The Dark Knight downloads suggests. With over one million downloads in just a week, The Dark Knight is quickly on its way to earning the dubious honor of being the most pirated movie of 2008.
What a perverse message to send to the movie studios: we love your product so much that we refuse to pay for it. How do we expect the industry to invest in more movies like The Dark Knight if we aren't willing to fund that investment?
Microsoft's Thomas Rubin, chief counsel for Intellectual Property Strategy, recently told the UK Association of Online Publishers that "the 'information wants to be free' approach not only does not work, actually it has been a disaster for almost all newspapers." While Rubin's words were somewhat self-serving, designed as they were to position Microsoft as the "safe" technology partner to the industry, to Google's detriment, he still has a point, and one that correlates to online video.
Yes, many people steal online music and video because they simply want a more convenient way to consume it. Rubin suggests that "It turn(s) out that most people do not want to steal music--they just want convenient online access to it," and I agree with that. Back when Fellowship of the Ring came out, I downloaded the movie from an IRC network and watched it for months before it hit retail. However, I also bought both the standard and extended versions, plus I saw the movie three times in the theaters. New Line Cinema made its money from me, and I got to conveniently watch the movie well before its retail release.
Yet my desire for convenience shouldn't have trumped New Line Cinema's desire for control and profit. I had no right--legal or moral--to pirate the movie to satisfy my own whims. I was wrong, and that wrong could well end up ensuring that fewer "Dark Knights" and "Fellowships" get created.
As consumers, whether of movies, software, or other digital goods, we do ourselves a disservice when we steal. I hate to rely on a Microsoft executive to teach this lesson, but Rubin's comments on the newspaper industry are instructive here:
Google continues to struggle to find a way to monetize the user-generated, amateur content on YouTube. As entertaining as some of it may be, it has so far proven to be of little commercial value.
Now let's contrast that with Google News. Put aside, for a moment, the concerns that many have expressed that Google is profiting by using others' content without permission. Consider just the economics. Google's vice president of search revealed this summer that Google News, a product that was put together in a weekend and that is run by automated search algorithms, generates $100 million in revenue for its business. That's no small sum, especially when one considers the negligible investment and extremely high margins. What it demonstrates is that quality content does have great value. Only in this case, as has been pointed out, the $100 million is a bonanza enjoyed by Google, not the creators.
Clearly this can't be the future for publishing.
Rubin is right. As technology providers, we need to foster new, convenient, and safe technologies and, hence, business models for content providers to make their products available online as wares, not warez.
Sure, it's easy to download The Dark Knight, and may even impress your friends. But do we really want YouTube entertainment? Hulu has thrived precisely because it has blended control of content with quality of content, while YouTube continues to struggle toward profitability on the back of its user-generated content model.
We may well get what we pay for. Go buy The Dark Knight now.