Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Is piracy more like stealing, or ad-blocking?

Though major media industry groups would have you believe that stealing music or other digital content is like stealing a physical object, a more appropriate analogy would be that it's a little like blocking ads on the internet. Ad revenue funds the content – you're paying for the content with your time – while the distribution costs are very little compared to distributing the content through physical media. But, people (and courts) often view the two issues very differently. While sharing an episode of The Office on BitTorrent could land you in court, no such case would be imaginable against someone who removed the ads from the official ad-supported version of the show on NBC's website. While copyright laws are viewed by all but anarchists (both anarcho-communists and market anarchists, actually) as sacrosanct, the WaPo leaves readers with the idea that the problem of ad-blocking might just work itself out.

The idea behind it is pretty obvious: blocking ads takes time, and people only do it if ads are obtrusive enough. If content providers are losing money because of missed ad revenues, they can respond by either two ways: an arms race to block and get around blocks, or by making the ads not worth blocking. Whereas the internet used to be filled with annoying talking ads, I haven't seen a video ad that starts automatically with the sound on in a long time. Even on a Romanian news website that I used to read which always had annoying ads long after professional American sites did, I haven't seen one lately. (The site, like most others, has gone upscale in a lot of other ways, but because of the brand name recognition it has, it can't shed its ridiculous name – HotNews.ro.) And though I almost always use Safari's pop-up suppressor, anecdotal evidence from when I surf without it tells me that pop-ups aren't nearly as prevalent as they once were. And though privacy advocates bemoan ad algorithms that analyze your habits and deliver ads that would appeal to you, ads are often helpful, and they can be a lot more helpful and less annoying to the consumer if they're better targeted.

Even though the media, courts, and lawmakers don't realize it yet, piracy has already forced producers of media content to make their products even more appealing than the pirated product. For example, I used to illegally download episodes of The Office with BitTorrent, until NBC started offering episodes with ads online for free. Though the pirated version is better quality, more enjoyable to watch since it doesn't have ads, and doesn't take much time if I plan properly, the ad-supported version is more appealing because I don't have to plan in advance. In fact, it even beats out (for me) streaming video pirate video sites like alluc.org, because it's faster and more reliable. Everyone I know who watches The Office (people who are the most appealing cohort: young people) watches it on nbc.com, and that includes people who also use pirate streaming video sites to watch shows that aren't available legally online.

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