We Australians do love to pirate things. Those of us who live here can tell you why: we’re either gouged extensively on the same products sold overseas or we’re subject to incredible delays. The Internet has helped to remedy both these things however with the former being solved by having access to the same shops that everyone else does and the latter eliminating most long delays. Still, even though we’ve come this far, we’re still subject to the same scarcity that just doesn’t need to exist with certain goods, especially ones that can be purely digital.
Our tendency towards piracy hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rights holders overseas but all they’ve done in response is send scorn over our way. There’s been a couple shining examples of what they should do, like the ABC offering episodes of Dr. Who on iView before it shows on TV (that’s no more for this season, unfortunately), but few seem to be following their lead. It seems that, at least for the near future, Australia will be viewed as nothing more than a pirate haven, a drain on the creative world that does nothing but take.
Or will it?
Any avid TV watcher will be aware of the blockbuster series Game of Thrones which just aired episode one of season 3. Whilst the numbers aren’t in yet it’s shaping up to be the most pirated show ever yet again with Australia making up a decent portion of that. You would think then that its publishers would be aghast at these numbers as the current executive thinking is that every download is somehow a missed sale, robbing them of untold millions that should be in their pockets. However an interview with HBO’s President of Programming Michael Lombardo reveals that they’re doing just fine in spite of it and in fact are kind of flattered by it:
“I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it is a compliment of sorts,” HBO programming president Michael Lombardo told EW. “[Piracy is] something that comes along with having a wildly successful show on a subscription network.”
Last month Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the actor who plays Jaime Lannister in the show, said that although people watch the show online, he hoped they would still go out and buy the DVD or Blu-ray. And guess what? According to HBO, they do.
“The demand is there,” Lombardo said. “And it certainly didn’t negatively impact the DVD sales.”
I think you could knock me over with a feather after I read that.
There’s been a lot of research done into whether or not piracy, with respect to the online kind, is an overall negative influence on creative industries like TV, music and video games. Preliminary studies have shown that music pirates tend to spend much more than their non-pirating counter parts and that appears to extend to other industries. Lombardo’s revelation that the rampant piracy experienced by their flagship series didn’t hurt their DVD sales fits in with this idea as well and it’s incredibly gratifying to see people at the executive finally admitting that piracy isn’t as big of an issue as they’ve made it out to be. Of course he’s well aware that such a position isn’t popular, even within his own company, but at least the seeds of dissent are starting to take root and hopefully it will continue on from there.
History has shown that attempting to eliminate piracy is a fool’s errand and the only reliable way to combat it is to provide a product that is competitive to what they offer. Valve, Netflix et. al. saw this for their respective industries and their success is a testament to the fact that people will pay good money once the price is set at the right point. Companies who attempt to fight this are going to find themselves routinely outclassed by these upstarts and it’ll only be a matter of time before they find themselves on the wrong side of a bankruptcy hearing. So other executives should take note of Lombardo’s stance and consider taking the same view of their own right’s portfolios.
You know who gets a ton of my money these days? Game publishers. Whilst they might not get the same amount per sale that they used to the amount I pump into the industry per year has rocketed up in direct correlation with my ability to pay. Nearly every game you see reviewed on here is purchased gladly with my own money and I would happily do the same with all forms of entertainment if they provided the same level of service that the games industry does. However my fellow Australian citizens will know the pain that we routinely endure here with delayed releases and high prices, so much so that our Parliament subpoenaed several major tech companies to have them explain themselves.
If I’m honest though I had thought the situation was getting a bit better, that was until I caught wind of this:
I saw the trailer for Cloud Atlas sometime last year and the concept instantly intrigued me. As someone who’s nascent years were spent idolizing The Matrix I’ve always been a fan of the Wachowskis’ work and so of course their latest movie was of particular interest. Since I’m on the mailing list for my local preferred cinema (Dendy, in case you’re wondering) I simply waited for the email announcing it. For months and months I waited to see something come out until I started hearing friends talking about how they had seen it already. Curious I checked my favourite Usenet site and lo and behold it was available, which mean only one thing.
It was available on DVD elsewhere.
That email I was waiting for arrived a couple days ago, 4 months after the original theatrical release in markets overseas. Now I know it’s not that hard to get a film approved in Australia nor is it that difficult to get it shipped over here (even if it was shot on film) so what could be the reason for such a long delay? As far as I can tell it’s the distributors holding onto their out dated business models in a digital era where they have to create artificial scarcity in order to try and bilk more money out of the end consumers. I’ve deliberately not seen movies in cinemas in the past due to shenanigans like this and Cloud Atlas is likely going to be the latest entry on my civil disobedience list.
I seriously can’t understand why movie studios continue with behaviour like this which is what drives customers to seek out other, illegitimate means of getting at their content. I am more than happy to pay (and, in the case of things like Cloud Atlas, at a premium) for content like this but I do not want my money going to businesses that fail to adapt their practices to the modern world. Artificial scarcity is right up there with restrictive DRM schemes in my book as they provide absolutely no benefit for the end user and only serve to make the illegitimate product better. Really when we’re hit from all sides with crap like this is it any surprise that we’re a big ole nation o pirates?
A decade ago many of my generation simply lacked the required disposable income in order to support their habits and piracy was the norm. We’ve all grown up now though with many of us having incomes that we could only dream of back then, enough for us to begin paying for the things we want. Indeed many of us are doing that where we’re able to but far too many industries are simply ignoring our spending habits in favour of sticking to their traditional business models. This isn’t sustainable for them and it frustrates me endlessly that we still have to deal with shit like this when it’s been proven that this Internet thing isn’t going away any time soon. So stop this artificial scarcity bullshit, embrace our ideals and I think you’ll find a torrent of new money heading in your direction. Enough so that you’ll wonder why you held such draconian views for so long.
On recommendation of a friend I recently watched a documentary called Side by Side which details the history of the primary technology behind the cinema: the cameras. It starts off by giving you an introduction into the traditional photographic methods that were used to create films in the past and then goes on to detail the rise of digital in the same space. Being something of a photographic buff myself as well as a technological geek who can’t get enough of technology the topic wasn’t something I was unfamiliar with but it was highly interesting to see what people in the industry were thinking about the biggest change to happen in their industry in almost a century.
Like much of my generation I grew up digitally with the vast majority of my life spent alongside computers and other non-analog style equipment. I was familiar with film as my father was something of a photographer (I believe his camera of choice was a Pentax K1000 which he still has, along with his Canon 60D) and my parents gave me my own little camera to experiment with. It wasn’t until a good decade and a half later that I’d find myself in possession of my first DSLR and still not another few years until after then that I’d find some actual passion for it. What I’m getting at here is that I’m inherently biased towards digital since it’s where I found my feet and it’s my preferred tool for capturing images.
One of the arguments that I’ve often heard levelled at digital formats, both in the form of images and your general everyday data, is that there’s no good way to archive it in order for future generations to be able to view it. Film and paper, the traditional means with which we’ve stored information for centuries, would appear to archive quite well due to the amount of knowledge contained in those formats that has stood the test of time. Ignoring for the moment that digital representations of data are still something of a nascent technology by comparison the question of how we archive it has come up time and time again and everyone seems to be under the impression that there’s no way to archive it.
This just isn’t the case.
Just before I was set to graduate from university I had been snooping around for a better job after my jump to a developer hadn’t worked out as I planned. As luck would have it I managed to land a job at the National Archives of Australia, a relatively small organisation tasked with the monumental effort of cataloguing all records of note that were produced in Australia. This encompassed all things from regular documents used in the course of government to things of cultural value like the air line tickets from when the Beatles visited Australia. Whilst they were primarily concerned with physical records (as shown by their tremendous halls filled with boxes) there was a small project within this organisation that was dedicated to the preservation of records that were born digital and were never to see the physical world.
I can’t take much credit for the work that they did there, I was merely a care taker of the infrastructure that was installed long before I arrived but I can tell you about the work they were doing there. The project team, consisting mostly of developers with just 2 IT admins (including myself), was dedicated to preserving digital files in the same way you would do with a paper record. At the time a lot of people were still printing them off and then archiving them in that way however it became clear that this process wasn’t going to be sustainable, especially considering that the NAA had only catalogued about 10% of their entire collection when I was there (that’s right, they didn’t know what 90% of the stuff they had contained). Thankfully many of the ideas used in the physical realm translated well to the digital one and thus XENA was born.
XENA is an open source project headed by the team at NAA that can take everyday files and convert them into an archival format. This format contains not only the content but also the “essence” of the document, I.E. it’s presentation, layout and any quirks that make that document, that document. The viewer included is then able to reconstruct the original document using the data contained within the file and since the project is open source should the NAA cease development on the project the data will still be available for all of those who used the XENA program. The released version does not currently support video but I can tell you that they were working on it while I was there but the needs of archiving digital documents was the more pressing requirement at the time.
Ah ha, I’ll hear some film advocates say, but what about the medium you store them on? Surely there’s no platform that can guarantee that the data will still be readable in 20 years, heck even 10 I’ll bet! You might think this, and should you have bought any of the first generation of CD-Rs I wouldn’t fault you for it, but we have many ways of storing data for long term archival purposes. Tapes are by far the most popular (and stand the test of time quite well) but for truly archival quality data storage that exists today nothing beats magneto-optical discs which can have lives measured in centuries. Of course we could always dive into the world of cutting edge science for likes like a sapphire etched platinum disc that might be capable of storing data for up to 10 million years but I think I’ve already hammered home the point enough.
There’s no denying that there are challenges to be overcome with the archival of digital data as the methods we developed for traditional means only serve as a pointer in the right direction. Indeed attempting to apply them to digital the world has often had disastrous results like the first reel of magnetic tape brought to the NAA which was inadvertenly baked in an oven (done with paper to kill microbes before archival), destroying the data forever. This isn’t to say we don’t have anything nor are we not working on it however and as technology improves so will the methods available for archiving digital data. It’s simply a matter of time until digital becomes as durable as its analogue counterpart and, dare I say it, not long before it surpasses it.