Can legit content ever be "better" than piracy?

Yesterday I wrote about piracy. It wasn’t the first time. It won’t be the last. But one response particularly got me thinking.
You don’t actually have to read yesterday’s column to make sense of this one, although obviously it would make me rather happy if you’d do so.
Go on. Knock yourself out.
No, not literally. Then you’ll have to work out where the teeth went, staunch the bleeding, stay conscious… it’ll take ages for you to get back here.
Anyway, I got a lot of responses across Twitter, Facebook and on the site, but one comment really struck home with me. It was the one left on the site, and I’m choosing to focus on it not to pick on the individual in question, but because it rather neatly summarised one of the biggest problems with piracy that, frankly, will never go away.
Here’s the quote in full:
“Well, let me see….I’ll continue to pirate until such time as these services are available on numerous and readily available platforms, ala Kodi, WD, Roku etc….. and STOP relying on last years PC based software. They still have some ways to go Alex. Its at least a start.
Oh, and I just spent about 10 mins on Call me slow (I’m a pirate remember), but I could not even find a list of shows available, and in what resolution?
Piracy still offers the best service. Until that is no longer the case, I’ll switch then.”

It’s not so much the first two paragraphs that particularly interest me, although I’ll address them quickly. Device access is a key and evolving matter, as platforms evolve along the way. Yes, it’s always going to be better to support more platforms, and Stan’s use of Silverlight is a bit of a pain — I’m a Mac Chrome user myself, and I can’t access Stan because it’s not supported as a plugin on that browser.
Here it’ll be particularly interesting to see what Netflix does when it finally does launch here sometime in March, because it’s already got a very strong ecosystem of client devices, well above those that competitors Stan, Presto or Quickflix can offer. We discussed that in a recent episode of Vertical Hold:

On the issue of searching Stan, as I noted in my review, its search is pretty horrible, but then, full lists of available content isn’t something Netflix makes easy either. Nor Hulu, nor YouTube, nor even most pirate sites.
As for the quality issue, my understanding is that it’s HD where material itself is available in HD. Netflix again should have a slight edge here offering 4K content when it launches, although again we’re still to see exactly what content it will or won’t have, with many tipping House Of Cards to remain a Foxtel exclusive, for example. Also, for a lot of Australians, 4K will remain a pipe dream on their current broadband connections.
Still, it’s that final comment that stuck with me all day.
Piracy still offers the best service. Until that is no longer the case, I’ll switch then.
Which means, in justification terms, that they’ll never switch. Again, I’m not using this as a barrage assault against the individual in question; it’s just that it’s a great summary of a common piracy position.
The issue here is that there’s really no reason why a pirate “service” shouldn’t be “better” (within the contexts of both “it’s free” and “it’s not limited”) than a paid one, because of the very simple fact that they’ve got essentially zero overheads to deal with.
They’re not paying for the production of content.
They’re not paying for the rights to content.
They’re not even paying for the back-end that delivers the streaming, because in the vast majority of cases it’s backed by a shared distribution network of users accessing torrents (or similar) of material, or online storage services being duped into hosting pirated material.
Yes, the interface for something like Popcorn Time is pretty decent, but then I’d argue that the interface for something like Netflix isn’t a slouch either, and that it arguably informed a lot of the UI decisions for Popcorn Time itself.
And actually, now that I think about it, I’m not entirely sold on the “best” side of things either, because the reality for a lot of pirate access is that because it relies on shared content distribution (or in some cases, dodgy server location where content can vanish quickly, because it’s not like it’s legit), it’s only the most popular and up to date material that’s likely to remain available for distribution and therefore be widely and quickly watchable.
That’s great if your interest is in last night’s episode of Game Of Thrones, but less so if you’re keen on niche TV or cinema. There’s more to life than the most popular strands of culture, but you wouldn’t know that looking at any reasonably popular torrent site. Keen to watch that film from the 1990s when you were a kid? Sorry, nobody’s offering that one any more, because they’re all too busy seeding copies of the latest Hollywood blockbuster instead.
There are and have been particular niche torrent sites for specific material, but the issue there becomes one of keeping a site or service active (illegal, remember?), and of course reaching that mainstream that might think of that movie they loved when they were a kid. It’s one particular advantage that a Stan, Netflix or whatever can have, because a dedicated server with specific films or shows on it can maintain access to those shows. Once a torrent dies, it’s all too often going to be dead and gone.
Lest I be accused of being on the Australian Screen Association’s payroll, there’s still plenty to be cranky about. Does there need to be improvement in the streaming services we get? Yes. Accounts were mixed, but I had more than a few cranky responses noting that Better Call Saul was hard to watch via Stan on Monday night due to overloaded servers that couldn’t cope with the strain. That needs improving if we’re paying for a service.
Equally, do I think that the copyright-vested interests often overstate their case to a shamefully hyped degree? Yes.
I won’t even argue that all piracy is bad.
Mark Pesce has a fascinating (if slightly depreciated by age) piece here on the hyper-distribution of programmes and how piracy could “pay” for a program’s production via inset (and therefore unskippable) advertising bugs. I wrote a similar lengthy piece myself over at Gizmodo a few years back looking at alternate models and their relative pros and cons.
Some of the Mark’s inset ads ideas have already come to pass in a number of US series where product placement is a solid fact of life. Actually, it’s as subtle as a house brick.
As an example, one of my trashy TV pleasures at the moment is Arrow, a series which features more Microsoft Surfaces and Lumia smartphones than anywhere outside a Microsoft store — and even then it’d be a close run matter. Arrow’s Star City is rather resolutely an all-Windows town, and that’s not accidental. That helps pay the bills.
I’m not one hundred per cent certain how Mark’s model would work for smaller series, or what happens to a series that loses viewers, because there’s a lot of assumed risk in an advertiser-pays-model — but then it’s certainly true that the production of television is an ever evolving field, and advertiser-supported, or product placement saturated programs would be one way to deal with that, although it’s in no way a specifically “new” idea. Anyone want to return to this?

In any case, while the models for TV distribution are changing, sitting on a “you’ve got to be better than piracy” excuse is, to my way of thinking, a terribly weak justification to sit on, because outside of exposure, piracy isn’t a part of the value chain in terms of helping to pay for the content, and even then, if it were, it would rely on advertising measures that would essentially be pirate-independent anyway.
Image: Pascal

1 thought on “Can legit content ever be "better" than piracy?”

  1. FYI people using Stan on Mac … yes, you can’t use Chrome, that’s Chrome’s mistake not Stan’s or Microsoft’s. You also can’t use full-screen mode without a flicker good for inducing epileptic fits. Maximise the window and put up with the border. It’s useable, just barely, but at least it won’t make you feel sick.

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