Stephen Speicher contributes The Clicker, an opinion column on entertainment and technology:
There is something that I've never really understood when it comes to the digital entertainment debate. That is: where do people get their sense of entitlement with regard to content? Don't get me wrong -- I understand the hatred of DRM. I too have been bitten by incompatible formats and locked-down systems. I understand the digital claustrophobia one feels when in the
warm embrace of DRM. DRM is often a nasty (if necessary) evil, and its existence nearly always degrades the user experience. I understand all that. What I don't get is the sense of entitlement people feel for the content itself. After all, it's not really our content. At the end of the day if that's how content owners choose to sell it, isn't that their right? Isn't ours simply a choice of to buy or not to buy?
Somewhere along the line people started to lose perspective in this whole DRM debate. Somewhere along the line people started to categorize music, movies, and other forms of entertainment as exempt from the normal rules of commerce. Well -- that's not quite true. It's not that people gave blanket exemptions to entertainment "theft." It's that for some odd reason, people determined that they were the ones who should choose what was right and wrong when it came to the buying and selling entertainment content. Instead of the all-too-familiar set of rules for selling goods (i.e. the seller and the buyer mutually agree on the terms of sale; if either of the parties doesn't agree, there is no transfer of goods) consumers felt perfectly justified in writing their own personal rules. Often times, merely because they could.
Law-abiding, moral people do things with entertainment content that they wouldn't dream of doing with physical goods. Can you imagine walking into a restaurant which you knew to be overpriced, eating, and then leaving without paying just because the you felt the place was a rip-off and not worth the prices they charged? Worse yet, can you imagine doing it the next day also? Of course not!
Yet people feel no such compunction about appropriating media content without paying anyone for it. Why is this the case?
The entertainment industries would have you believe that the dreaded "perfect copy" is responsible for people illegally acquiring and sharing content. That is to say, because this new digital world offers heretofore unprecedented levels of quality in bootlegs, people steal. Frankly, that's a load. It confuses the cause and the effect. Sure, the existence of perfect copies has made the piracy problem more wide-spread and tougher to "fix," but people's disrespect of "entertainment value" happened well before the internet was even a glimmer in Al Gore's eye.
We all did it when we were younger; we'd pay to watch one movie, and at its conclusion we'd scurry down the hall and pop into another. "Why not?" we thought. "It's not like we're actually going to pay to see Bio-Dome. Besides, the seat is empty." There is no arguing the logic. It's impeccable. It's clearly a case of no harm, no foul. There's only one problem: that's really not the rule. Believe it or not, there is no "I wasn't gonna pay for it anyway" clause in the commerce rulebook. Nor is there an "I disagree with your terms so instead I'll just take it" clause. Yet, for some reason, when it comes to entertainment -- and the goods become intangible -- these become perfectly acceptable arguments.
The obvious answer is that people have no respect for goods where the marginal cost of production is zero or close to it. It doesn't matter that work went into its production. It doesn't matter that the sales of current goods pay for development of future goods. It seems to only matter what production costs. And, of course, what the consumer's self-proclaimed set of rules are.
I'm always reticent to suggest that people are ever "stealing" entertainment. Despite the best efforts of the industries involved to paint them as such, few of these people are criminals. Yet, they each break the rules and feel very little remorse about it.
So today we'll try something different. Today I'm going to ask you some questions. Do you have different rules for content vs. tangibiles? If so, why do you consider entertainment to be different from say, groceries? What are your personal rules about personal use of copyrighted -- often DRMed -- digital content??
For instance, I have a friend who buys music via an online store and then immediately torrents "clean" copies. Does he have a right to do so? Absolutely not, but he's fine with it. I've spent the last couple days loading up my new 5.5G iPod with movies I've previously purchased. Did I lose sleep over it? Nope. However, at the same time I recognized that I was indeed breaking the rules and it would be perfectly within the copyright holder's rights to slap so much DRM on there that I couldn't do it in the future -- just like it would be perfectly within my rights to not buy the movies if they did so.
I know others who only torrent broadcast shows. Still others torrent shows their cable companies don't carry or carry with bundles they don't like. On the more extreme side, I know people who feel perfectly within their rights to download music because "the label is screwing the artist."
Share your rules with the world. What's the most interesting rationalization you've developed for bending the rules for entertainment content, and why is it ok? I want to know, and something tells me you've probably thought about this before.
If you have comments or suggestions for future columns, drop me a line at email@example.com.