The Internet has changed the way many of us get our media. There are legal ways to get the shows and songs that we want, but those often cost money, making illegal options much more enticing. The entertainment industry and the government have tried to clamp down on piracy, but the practice continues. Professor Brian Carver teaches at the U.C. Berkeley School of Information. KALW’s Ben Trefny sat down with him to talk piracy.
TREFNY: So Mega Upload, other sites, the Napsters of yesteryear. People are downloading regardless of the fact that it’s not really legal. I mean, it can come down to individual ethics, but it happens all over the place. I know plenty of people who find things for free easily. Does this culture need to be changed?
CARVER: Yeah, I think the music industry in particular, and maybe increasingly the movie industry, feels they’re losing the sort of cultural or thought war on this. Even the use of the word “piracy,” they’re using less and less because they feel it doesn’t have the impact it once had. You’ll hear them talking about “content theft” – that’s part of all of their conversations now. And I think it’s an attempt at sort of changing people’s minds about this. If people start to think of it as theft, they’re hopeful that no one can reclaim that word as a positive thing, right? So if we describe this as content theft, then maybe people will start to look at it in that light.
But I think you’re right that it goes on and that’s been the history over the last ten or 15 years. The content industries are playing a game of Whack-a-Mole, where they shut down Napster, they shut down Grokster, Kazaa, Aimster. They go after site after site and it keeps popping up in a new form or a new technology. They’ve tried suing individuals; they’ve tried a range of different things. It’s a mixed set of results. You can say they’ve had some successes because they have shut down those sites. But it’s in some sense a failure because it keeps cropping up in another form. And if we’re losing “mind share” – if people don’t see this as a problem and they continue to do it, and just move to whatever the new platform is, then it’s a never-ending problem, potentially. I guess there are those who would say that what they haven’t moved quickly enough to, and what they’ll ultimately have success with, is actually competing with free. And they always have said, “We can’t do that, we can’t compete with free,” but I don’t think that’s true. iTunes has been phenomenally successful and that’s not free. When you present someone with a really great product at a reasonable price there are a lot of folks who will say, “Okay, I’ll opt for that, rather than searching for the same content on the free sites.”
So, we’re beginning to see the video and movie options – legal options – that are convenient for consumers, reasonably priced, and I think if they focus on moving toward those approaches as quickly as possible, that will be the best approach to dealing with the overall problem.
TREFNY: So the way that the Internet is now and the cloud of information that we have access to in different ways, what do you think should be free for people to access?
CARVER: It’ll be hard for the content industry to begin charging for things that people feel like they used to get for free: network television, on an episode by episode basis. Although, we’re seeing some success with that now. I think you get more people willing to sign up for subscription services, like Hulu Plus, or Netflix, or something like that. It’s more like the cable model. I pay a monthly fee to get access to certain content, so I think you can bring consumers around to those sort of business models. But a lot of people are also having good success with an ad-based model. They can provide free to the end user, content...
TREFNY: Like Google.
CARVER: YouTube has a lot of stuff that is supported by ads. And some of the portions of sites like Hulu are supported by ads or even the network sites themselves. If you go directly to NBC.com or things like that, a lot of the shows you can watch at no cost to the end user, but you’re going to have to watch some ads.
TREFNY: Which is going right back to the old network TV model anyway.
CARVER: Yes. This is an old model that has worked in this past, and we’re trying it out again now in this new Internet context. I think it’s likely that that sort of thing will gain some traction. But, to your original question, what should be free, I don’t know that anything should be free; this is a business decision for the content providers to make. They are competing with free out there right now and their efforts to squash that through litigation and legislation are only marginally successful, so finding ways to adopt a business model and provide convenience to the end user that allows them to compete with free is their most pressing issue.
TREFNY: Because we’re so used to so many things being free or accessible whether or not it’s legal, do you see trends toward fewer things being free, a more regulated and potentially punitive Internet? Because it started out with access to practically anything that wasn’t encrypted, and now it’s access to practically anything if you want to be able to get it.
CARVER: Yeah, people are trying to figure out what are those pieces of content that people are willing to pay for and that we as a content provider would rather lock up and take the money we can make off of those who are willing to pay rather than continue providing it for free. So like The New York Times deciding to go to a subscription-based model: that’s a bold move, and people are watching it to see if it works, to see if they’ve hit upon the right kind of business model, where you can make enough money from your subscribers to say that this was a good idea, or whether you’re losing so many visitors who would have been viewing ads that you ought to switch back.
So people are experimenting and some of those business models are going to work. I think, overall, it will lead to less completely free content online. But I’d be surprised if ad-supported models, where for the end user it is free, doesn’t continue to play a pretty big role.