Sunday, April 8, 2012

Why Your Fans Are Disconnected

This is the last in my series of posts exploring criticisms of file-sharing. During the series, I touched on how I don't feel entitled to free content, I want to be treated fairly, I buy content that I think is overpriced and like it or not, the customer can and will control distribution. The final criticism I'm going to explore is probably one of the most common ones I see. It's also the one that shows why file-sharers don't view entertainment products in the same spectrum as physicals products.

I think something content creators should try to absorb is that file-sharers have disconnected entertainment from physical products such as shoes and cars. In our minds, we've even disconnected the song from the physical CD it comes on, to us, these are two completely different items. We wouldn't steal a CD from Best Buy, but we see no harm in downloading that same album for free. I'm hoping to explain to you why that is.


You see this criticism listed in several different forms, often times with an example using a tangible item: “If you don't like the price of the car, you don't steal it.” Or, “If you don't like the DRM on the movie DVD, then don't buy it. You don't deserve a free copy just because you don't like DRM.” And sometimes they tie it into a customer service issue, “If you don't like the service at Home Depot, then you take your business to Lowe's, you don't just go take what you want from Home Depot.” All three of those are rather compelling arguments on the surface. If I wasn't so knee-deep in the file-sharing battlefield, I'd probably use those arguments myself.

I'll gloss over the "copying is not theft" portion of the criticism and explain why, even though it starts out fairly solid, this argument doesn't hold up well with me. My first issue is that many times, you don't know what the restrictions are until you've purchased and opened the product. And once opened, the product is mine to keep. The disconnect has started. Publishers have gotten better at printing the terms on the box, but it still has quite a ways to go. It's usually hidden in small print and can be extremely vague at times. The other issue I have with this particular criticism is that it tries to equate tangible items with entertainment.

Critics will have you believe that entertainment products are no different than a hammer. Buying a hammer and buying a movie are not even remotely in the same ballpark. Try this experiment, go down to Home Depot and buy the shittiest hammer they have. Take it home and use it. Return the hammer to Home Depot the following day and tell them, "This is the shittiest hammer I've ever used, I'd like a refund." You'll get your money back. Try taking a movie back to Best Buy the next day and tell them, "I just watched this movie and it was horrible, I'd like a refund." Let me know how that works out for you.

As a content creator, you might think your project is no different than a hammer and should be transacted in the same manner. But I've never had to gamble on buying a hammer. I've never gone to a hardware store and had to watch videos of people using various hammers before deciding which one to buy. I've never had to buy a hammer based solely off of promotional “reviews.” And I've never been stuck with my hammer purchase once I found out the hammer sucked. The disconnect has widened.

Here's a real key point in all this: entertainment products are the only type of product where the terms and conditions can change after you've paid for the product. When the DMCA passed in 1998, I became an overnight criminal. Every CD I had ripped and converted to mp3, every movie I had copied to my computer and every game I had installed on both computers I own despite the manufacturers attempts to stop me, made me a lawbreaker. No other products in the marketplace suffer from this weakness. The disconnect strengthens.

Since the critics love analogies so much, let's try one. Imagine for a second that you purchased a car in 2010. It doesn't matter what kind of car, let's just say a Ford SUV. And let's say in this car is a stereo made by Pioneer. You like this car, it's got all the features you wanted: cruise control, power windows, air conditioning, iPod port, etc. You like it so much that you even bought a service agreement that covers quarterly oil changes, weekly car washes and yearly tire rotation. Now fast forward a couple of years to March 2012. Without your input, Ford has decided that every SUV currently on the road is no longer allowed to have air conditioning. They are going to send a crew to your house to dismantle your air conditioner in such a way that you can't get it repaired. Oh, and they're not going to reimburse you for the loss of the air conditioner even though you paid for it when you originally bought the car.

Well, that sucks. So now you have a car with no air conditioner. Two days later, Pioneer announces that they are not renewing their agreement with Ford, so no more Fords will ship with Pioneer stereos. In addition, Pioneer wants all the currently installed stereos to be remotely disabled so Ford sends a signal to your stereo that makes it self destruct. This time though, Ford will give you a $49 credit on a future Ford purchase for the inconvenience. Two more days later, Ford decides the service agreement you signed up for no longer includes weekly car washes and they are keeping the monthly fee the same.

As far-fetched as what I've just described sounds, each of those scenarios has a real-world entertainment equivalent but people seem to not bat an eye because "it's on the internet." The critics response to all this is, “If you don't like it, don't buy it.” What? I've already bought it. What's my recourse now? I would never have spent $25,000 on this car in the first place if I knew all this was going to happen. They've made my car less valuable and I just have to deal with it? Disconnect complete.

As a person who buys a lot of content and also engages heavily in file-sharing, it's rather amusing to have critics try to simplify what's going on with the “If you don't like it, take your business to Lowe's” analogy. As if this was just a nonchalant issue of poor customer service, like staying away from a horrible restaurant. To us, this is much larger than a poor customer service issue. This looks and feels like a scam. After being sold something, we find out later that it's not what we bought. When we turn to the sellers begging for reform, they instead sue us and try to get laws passed to criminalize our behavior.

Customer's make very personal connections with entertainment. You only need to look at the outpouring of support and numerous memorials when an artist dies for proof. You simply expect someone to stop liking an artist and "take their business elsewhere" when they aren't happy with post-purchase changing terms and conditions. That's insane. So I guess if you're in love with Taylor Swift's music, you're supposed to just drop her and take your business elsewhere by buying Stephen King's books when Universal Music starts using retroactive play-once DRM. Shit, I hope I didn't just give the RIAA a new DRM strategy.

The entire “If you don't like it, don't buy it” criticism is based on an extremely flawed assumption. The critics assume that when I'm looking at content, that I listen to 30-second sound clips, watch movie trailers or play game demos and then go pirate what I want instead of buying it. That couldn't be any further from the truth. If I have even the slightest interest in something, my very first stop is the file-sharing sites. I don't listen to 30-second samples. I don't read preview chapters. I don't watch trailers. Like it or not, my “samples” are the full unrestricted versions of the content.

It's pretty much gotten to the point where if I can't pirate your stuff, you'll never get my attention in the first place. I'll never know about what you have to offer, I'll never know if I like your products, I'll never buy your stuff because to me you won't exist. Your only hope to get me to buy at this point is that you become so wildly popular that I have no choice but to know who you are. But if you're that wildly popular, you'll be pirated anyway.

There is a valid underlying point in the “If you don't like it, don't buy it” criticism. I actually don't buy it if I don't like it. But I think here is where the critics and I go down separate paths. The critics will say that I shouldn't pirate it either, and I say that if I don't pirate anything, I won't buy anything, including the stuff that I like. Who knows, maybe that's what you want. It won't bother me, I like your content, but I don't need your content. Before I started file-sharing, I didn't buy anything. If overnight, the critics could wave their magic wand and make file-sharing go away, I would stop buying content, simple as that.

The file-sharing community made some decisions. Yes, it sucks that you weren't at the meeting. We got kind of tired of waiting for you to show up so we moved on without you. We are done with your sleight-of-hand tricks. File-sharing unrestricted files prevents us from getting screwed. This is why we still download everything that we buy. The better you understand this, the more money you stand to make.

This post was not my attempt to explain why I'm right and you're wrong. For those who are heavily anti-piracy, everything I just said is heinously wrong on multiple levels. They think it's people like me who are killing entertainment even though I buy a ton of stuff. This post was also not me trying to defend myself, I've already told you that I'm not ashamed of my file-sharing. What I'm really trying to do is convey my thought process so you can leverage the information to make a profit. In an odd way, I do it for selfish reasons. I want to see entertainment continue to grow. I consume it on a regular basis and I can't wait to see what you guys make next.

File-sharing has allowed us to invest in your products instead of gambling on them.

Next post: How file-sharing is destroying the movie business.

No comments: