Sometimes, Piracy Rocks

Bruce Francis - N YOnline piracy has been a big issue over the past few months, mostly owing to the Stop Online Piracy Act, the web protest by Wikipedia, Google and others, and the subsequent withdrawal of the bill. The opposition to SOPA called the one-day rebellion the largest online protest in history with 10 million petition signatures, 8 million phone calls attempted and 4 million emails sent. SOPAstrike.org estimates that more than one billion people were prevented from accessing sites like Wikipedia on January 18, 2012:

 

Freedom, entrepreneurship good. Bad legislation, bad. Piracy very bad. Right?

But then I came across this clip of the venerable Walt Mossberg interviewing the infinitely more venerable Neil Young. The topic of most of the interview is Young’s quest to get someone to manufacture a sort of high-fidelity iPod that will capture the 95% of music data that is currently missing in popular digital formats. But then Young surpises us with his unconventional views on piracy.You’d think that Young, despite his rebel rocker soul, would be firmly part of the music industry establishment: he has one of the most incredible creative catalogues of any living musical artists, he loves his record company, and recording artists of all stripes eagerly donate their talents to his annual Bridge School benefit concert.  So I was kinda surprised when Young, when asked about music piracy, called it “the new radio” and “21st century low-res.” It’s how music gets distributed and finds new audiences—a function that radio once performed but largely has abdicated for all but a handful of genres. You can hear his surprising comments here at about 16 minutes in:

 

  

Piracy is the bête noir for publishing, too. As Matthew Ingram writes in GigaOm, that’s how it seemed at first to Adam Mansbach, the author of the hilarious but profanely titled satire, Go the F--- to Sleep:

Bruce Francis - Cortes

Mansbach’s book had been born out of a humorous post he made on Facebook. Buzz was building—and outpacing the publisher’s ability to deliver on time.

“What happened next was fairly predictable. Some of those who had PDF copies of the e-book, whether advance proofs sent to the publisher or review copies, uploaded them to the Internet, just as review versions of movies often find their way onto file-sharing sites within days of a movie’s release. That the book began as a viral joke on Facebook no doubt helped build the buzz about it on social networks, and gradually, pirated copies started to emerge and circulate to fill that demand.”

Ingram tells us that the publisher tried to stomp out the proliferating PDFs to no avail. Then surprisingly, the book, with little advance traditional marketing, shot to number one on Amazon in its first week of sale. For this fractured fairy tale, piracy had become the new marketing.

The company bigchampagne.com has taken it one step further, using aggregating stats from pirate and bit torrent sites in addition to tradition retail data to create a credible rival to Billboard and its famous Top 40 lists. Even the ultra-traditional Economist found that “Media firms find that statistics on internet piracy can be rather useful.”

Anti-piracy crusaders cite scary stats like billions of dollars in lost profits and more than 70,000 jobs are lost each year because of bandwidth-hogging piracy and our general refusal to recognize this as a problem. And yet lists of the most pirated movies and TV shows also seem to be the highest grossing in sales as well. It’s still stealing, but it sure is hard to portray James Cameron as a victim for his lost Avatar sales.

(This is probably a good time to admit that I work for a company with a big stake in the vigorous defense of intellectual property rights. My views are my own—and yup, they would probably change pretty faster is salesforce.com’s IP were purloined and running out of a Shanghai data center.)

Still, I think this is a great idea to play with. Just as the Internet Age forced us to reconsider the idea of value residing in ubiquity versus scarcity, these divergent views on an old problem convince me that sometimes, piracy rocks.