Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Who's to blame for internet piracy?

The High Court has ruled that the file-sharing website the Pirate Bay must be blocked by five major internet service providers (ISPs) - effectively censoring it from the internet for all of their customers.

The motive behind the ruling is to crack down on the illegal file sharing that Pirate Bay makes possible. To put it in layman's terms, someone uploads a file (it can be anything, legal or illegal) and then they create a "torrent" which is a tiny file which, once downloaded, lets people download the original file. And anyone who's downloaded the file also uploads little bits of the file at the same time. So then someone downloading it won't have to download it from the original uploader but can download little bits of it from several different people and then have their computer assemble it into one complete file. What this does is distribute the load on people's internet connections and makes downloading the files much faster. A website like Pirate Bay basically just acts like Google when it comes to finding torrents for a particular file.

But, since, like Google, Pirate Bay doesn't monitor or discriminate about what torrents its search engine can find, this means that, say, a Hollywood blockbuster that someone's illegally uploaded, can be found and downloaded, without charge by anyone and everyone just as easily as a student film which was uploaded with no desire by the authors to ever charge for it.

Hence why the High Court has ordered Pirate Bay to be blocked by the ISPs. But the problem is that this won't do anything at all to tackle privacy. For starters, someone like me who doesn't use one of the ISPs affected is still able to view Pirate Bay. On top of that, people can still find Pirate Bay by typing in the raw IP address instead of the user-friendly www.<website name here>.com format. And, if that doesn't work, they can also use a proxy to get around the block. And, on top of that, there are dozens if not hundreds of other torrent search engines out there - each doing exactly the same as Pirate Bay. So if you shut one down people will just move to another one.

So, as a means of stopping piracy, all the High Court ruling has done is spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers money in a court case to delay, by the five seconds it takes to find another torrent search engine, people who download pirated files. And any other measures they try will fail as well - there's no method you can put in place that people won't be able to get around.

The only way you're ever going to significantly reduce piracy is by tackling the cause of it. And the cause of it is the media industry who are currently waging a costly and completely ineffective crusade against piracy.

Let me give you an example of the problem. Game of Thrones is a hit US tv series which is currently half way through the second series. It is incredibly popular and I heartily recommend it for being an absolutely first rate bit of television with production qualities as high as any multi-million dollar Hollywood epic.

So, here I am, a British fan of the series, and I want to watch it. What do I do?

The show is aired on the US premium cable network HBO. In the UK it's syndicated to Sky Atlantic. So all I need to do is to pay out £20 a month, for 18 months, to get Sky Atlantic, in order to watch this season of A Game of Thrones. But I don't want to watch the other shows on Sky Atlantic and don't want to pay £360 just to watch one tv series. Or maybe I'm not able to get Sky Atlanic even if I wanted to.

So how do I watch it? Well, it's not available for download on iTunes, or available to watch online (via subscriptions to websites like NetFlix or via a one off cost per episode). I could wait and buy the DVD of the series when it comes out but HBO took six months to release the box set for the first series.

This means I'm faced with paying over the odds for a service I don't need or want, just to watch one tv show, or to wait six months in order to buy it over the odds in the shops.

On the other hand, I could go to a file sharing site, like Pirate Bay, and within 30 minutes with a passable internet connection, or 5 to 10 minutes with a good one, be watching the latest episode free of charge. And, as a bonus, have it on my computer so I can watch it again and again and again as many times as I like.

Now, obviously I'm neither going to confirm nor deny whether I've used the latter option. But what I will say is this:

I like A Game of Thrones. I think it's a brilliant series and I know it cost a lot to produce. I  know that the actors in it are putting a lot of effort and time into acting their parts so brilliantly. I also know that the author whose books the tv show is based on also put a great deal of time and creative thought into writing the books. In short, I know it costs lots of people lots of time and money to produce a show like A Game of Thrones. And I want them to get paid for their work.

But they won't let me. Or, rather, they won't make it easy. I'd love nothing better than to be able to go to HBO's website and pay per episode to watch A Game of Thrones online. So would most people who pirate the series.

People are perfectly happy to pay for something they like. But if they're forced to go through all sorts of hoops just for the privilege of paying then it's hardly surprising if lots of them choose the quicker, easier, and free, option of pirating it instead.

If HBO were to charge £5 an episode to watch A Game of Thrones, with perhaps a discount for watching the first episode so that people can decide whether they like it or not before paying to watch any more episodes, then I'm pretty sure most people would pay it. And £5 per viewer per episode is probably more than HBO normally get.

And the thing is, this model, of letting people pay on demand, online, for something they like, has been proven to work. Just look at iTunes. When people here a song on the radio they can instantly pay a small, but affordable, fee to buy that song on its own - without having to wait weeks for it to appear in the shops or having to pay a lot of money to buy it as part of an album of other songs they may not like.

But the rest of the media industry seems determined not to adopt this model. And, until they do, as long as they keep on making it difficult for customers to buy their products, piracy is going to continue and to grow - no matter how many websites they get blocked.

So, to answer the question I pose in the title of this article, the people who are to blame for internet piracy are, perversely enough, the very people who are trying to stop it.


  1. The way they're currently trying to prevent piracy is completely ineffective. If there were a database on the internet of all these American shows I want to watch, where I could pay a small fee per episode like I do on iTunes, that would be ideal. As it stands, I was using my mother's Sky account to watch Game of Thrones on Sky Go, but that stopped working recently, so I'm going to have to find another way.

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