Walking the Plank

Posted on January 15, 2012


OK, this column’s not going to be about planking. This column’s about piracy — specifically, about some legislation cooked up by some mega-corporations to put an end to rampant global piracy of their intellectual property that, if unimpeded, will bankrupt them — namely, SOPA (in the House of Representatives) and Protect IP (in the Senate). I’m not being facetious here. If you read some of what proponents of this legislation are saying, many large corporations are in dire straits, on the verge of financial collapse as a direct result of piracy. But if you read some other comments, you get a more sobering look.

What’s inherently bothersome is the mindset of the corporations. Let’s dive back to the infamous 1960s when 8-track tape was first developed. Suddenly, music was available in another format from the familiar vinyl. If you wanted to play your favorite Al Hirt album on your new car outfitted with the latest 8-track tape player, you had to go out and buy another copy of that album in 8-track form. It didn’t seem quite fair, but the recording companies loved it. What better way to boost sales and milk consumers? Then came audio cassettes. But they were a double-edged sword. Most audio cassette players could also record tapes, so instead of having to buy a new tape, you could record your vinyl disc onto audio cassette tape. Most recording companies were not happy about that. But they were ecstatic when compact discs (CDs) were introduced in the early 1980s. If you wanted to play your favorite albums on a CD player, you had to go out and buy new CDs. You could not (easily then) burn your vinyl, 8-tracks (some joke, eh boss?) or audio cassette tapes onto CDs. You were held hostage by the recording companies. If you were content with your vinyl or tapes, then all was well (except many companies started releasing music only in CD format, so if you did not upgrade to a CD player, you were shut out of following your favorite musical artists). The music industry salivated at the sales and the little choice available to consumers. Consumers to them weren’t clients to please but suckers to bilk at every instance. And most aware consumers were hip to this. No one likes being played for the sap.

Then, the unfortunate occurred for the music industry. Personal computers started boasting CD drives as one means of delivering software (1 CD versus 20 or so 3.5″ floppy discs). The ability to read and play music CDs on PCs was a natural. As soon as that happened, innovative (and fed up) souls figured out a way to copy the music data. Now people could extract songs (data) from CDs and duplicate that data, as well as exchange it on the Internet. Some saps found it was time to turn the tables. The resentment towards the music industry extended from the recording companies even to the artists who many fans felt colluded with the record companies to rip them off. The “war” began.

But the “war” was waged then not only on the behalf of the music industry, but also by software manufacturers. It became relatively easy to make illegal copies of installation CDs, or to exchange them willy-nilly. Software manufacturers and the music industry launched their efforts to combat piracy. In doing so, they copy protected discs and shut down file swapping sites. They’d try to figure out ways to stop hackers from figuring out their anti-piracy schemes (DRM — digital rights management schemes), but the best hackers would find any DRM scheme a challenge.

Fundamental to these efforts by the music and software industries was the presumption that any (or even every) customer is a potential thief. It’s like you entered a store, and there was a store detective there to follow your every move. Some customers tired of being viewed as thieves and many complied and fulfilled the companies’ expectations: “if you think I’m going to steal your stuff, well I’ll do so anyway.”

This is where I’d like to pause: Notice the shift of view: From pleasing the customer to policing the customer: Instead of customer as potential friend; it’s customer as potential pirate.

Somehow the concept of “the customer’s always right” or even one of trying to give what the customer what s/he wants at a decent price got waylaid. What was more important was to extract as much money as possible out of the sucker (I mean, customer) and give them no right of redress. What was more important to these mega-corporations was that their profits soar, and their stock prices, which would please their stockholders. The shift was from serving the interests of the public to serving the interests of a private minority of investors.

As the 1990s drew to a close, these mega-corporations that would rue and decry any governmental regulation governing how they conduct business also spent great piles of money lobbying for greater and greater protection of their intellectual property (music and software) under the law. How ironic. Copyright gets extended. Laws get passed outlawing online piracy, etc. There are even laws that prohibit writing about how to break anti-piracy schemes (wouldn’t that be counter to the First Amendment?).

And as the 1990s drew to a close and the 21st century burst onto the scene, more mega-corporations involved with intellectual property got involved in the fray. Technologically, it became possible for individuals to copy television shows and movies, and now books (in ebook form). So now we have the whole weight of all entertainment and information industries behind efforts to limit piracy. Those who sell music, software, books, magazines, movies, television shows, etc., are focusing on the small minority of the dishonest instead of being friendly to customers (something about honey here being more attractive?). For starters, in being friendly to customers, figuring out ways to be ‘”backward compatible” should be job #1. The ability for newer versions of intellectual property being able to run/use older versions — that goes to the software [file format] and hardware [readers/players] is important. Book publishers should be very aware (and wary) regarding this point: Newer ebook formats need to be compatible with older formats, and new readers compatible with older readers. Book publishers will significantly alienate their customers if, say in ten years, it will deliver new formats and readers that are completely incompatible with current ones and that will require their client base to re-purchase their ebook libraries in the new formats. (I’d be very surprised if there are no executives at major corporate book publishers who are not contemplating such a move.)

As diverse these entertainment and information industries are, they are singular in their view of the customer as thief.

That’s the problem.

If you give someone something they value at a fair price, they won’t betray you. You’ve respected the client and they know it and the client returns that respect and trust with repeat business.

I’m not a pollyanna here: Of course, there will always be some customers who are dishonest. There will always be a small small minority who “steal” for the thrill, or from some misguided principle. But if you’re a physical store owner and you think everyone is out to rip you off and shoplift from you, something is desperately wrong with that perspective. It’s also a perspective that will not keep you in business for long if there’s competition that offers a different take on the customer.

That’s where we’re up shit creek without a paddle: All of these mega-corporations know there’s no other competition. They’re the only show in town. They know that if we don’t like how we’re being treated, there’s no other choice. Ain’t that the kicker?

Wasn’t capitalism about competition, fair prices, choice and innovation?