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Piracy Concerns Cloud a More Important Issue

By Jim Bray
May 23, 2007

Is there a Jolly Roger flying over your home theater?

Hollywood and its ilk seems to feel that consumer piracy is one of the most important challenges to their bottom lines. But I think there's another issue that's more threatening to their profitability – and that of the electronics equipment manufactures whose products let us play back Hollywood's products. It's a problem these parties have inflicted on themselves, and about which they can do something right now.

It's the issue of respect, something the content creators seem awfully big on insisting they be treated with, but which seems awfully lacking from their side. It seems to me, sitting here in my ivory basement, that the crummy way "the showbiz industry" treats its customers – the people on whom they depend for their profits – is a more fundamental challenge to their long term ability to buy Maybachs than whether or not the occasional citizen burns a disc.

The entertainment industry honchos get rich because ordinary people open their wallets to them, whether their hard-earned after-tax money is spent in neighborhood theaters, home theaters, or portable theaters. And that's fine. I have no problem with people getting rich; I hope to join them.

But where's the other half of the equation? Where's the value for the consuming public?

Take movie theaters, for example. First run tickets cost an arm and a leg, but it isn’t enough, apparently: these days, you're forced to sit through a string of commercials before you even get to the trailers, let alone the feature. And chances are that hot new movie will be out of focus and/or dim (and perhaps with shrill audio) compared with the version you'll be able to get at home on DVD before long. Great incentive for a night out.

On the other hand, if you opt to stay home you're treated like a thief. I saw a parody poster recently of an unhappy youth, captioned "I've just bought my favorite movie of all time on DVD from a shop." It then points out that, even though he bought a legitimate copy, he now has to sit through unskippable anti-piracy warnings every time he puts the disc into his player. The poster ends with the message that "if they keep on treating their customers like that, you're probably better off getting a pirate copy."

It's an excellent point. Even though most consumers don't pirate, the industry still treats them like criminals, idiots, or at the very least, know-nothings incapable of telling right from wrong (as if showbiz folk have a monopoly on righteousness!).

But unskippable warnings are only part of the problem. Once you've bought that favorite DVD, chances are there'll be a new, special edition released shortly thereafter, and maybe yet another one after that. And they want you to buy each and every one.

Customers, according to comments I've noticed on the web, are starting to voice their frustration at being treated as nothing more  than bottomless wallets. And good for them!

Things get even worse when you look at the next home entertainment wave, high definition DVD's. The electronics industry, blind to history, introduced not one, but two high definition DVD formats that, while terrific, force consumers to choose between two incompatible formats. Apparently, they learned nothing from the VHS/beta debacle.

Why would any consumer, other than he who simply must have the latest thing, buy either Blu-ray or HD DVD when he could end up holding the bag a couple of years down the road when, as seems probable, one of the formats dies out?

At least this cloud has a silver lining. Warners and LG are cutting consumers a break, the former with hybrid discs that contain both formats and the latter with a hybrid player that plays both formats. But these are exceptions to the rule, though other companies will probably jump on the band wagon if it appears profitable.

But there's more bad news. It's unforgiveable how the "early adopters" of high definition TV's have been treated. These consumers helped drive the fledgling HDTV revolution but now their multi-thousand dollar high definition TV's (which are still perfectly serviceable otherwise) don't have the special, digital, HDMI connection required for optimum picture quality with digital content. Hollywood insisted on HDMI not because it's the best for quality but because it has sophisticated anti-piracy provisions built in. As always it's about control.

Do you respect someone who treats you with disrespect, or do you quietly seethe and wait for a chance to stick it to him?

I don't advocate piracy, but I can understand why the virtually powerless consumer may feel an urge to fight back. Besides, there are legitimate reasons to make a copy of a disc bought legitimately. Here's one: I've had enough DVD's and CD's develop performance-crippling scratches over the years that making an archive/backup shouldn't be out of the question.

When you make a purchase, you assume some rights to enjoying that property. Why shouldn't you be able to protect your investments? You have rights beyond the right to open your wallet!

This also applies to purchases via download: downloads should be archivable onto disc (or whatever storage device turns your crank), not only for safekeeping but for convenience of playback in whatever device you darn well please, be it iPod, DVD-Audio player, car CD player, etc.

If something's "free", it's fair to expect commercials – because nothing is free. But if the industry expects to hamstring people's ability to enjoy a product, via copy protection or whatever, that product should either be a lot cheaper (I'll hold my breath!) or there should be another version available, even at a premium, that respects the consumer's rights.

So there it is. The key to the showbiz industry's profitability isn't the creation of ever more advanced copy protection. It's the creation of affordable product people actually want to own, and a respect for the rights, the intelligence  and the integrity of your customers.

This shouldn't be rocket science.

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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