Disruptions of Transmission: the Piracy Problem

In Chapter 1 of Inventing the Medium  I describe the 3 layers that make up any medium of communication: inscription, transmission, and representation
(see Glossary for definitions), and I noted that the new digital medium has introduced disruption at all three levels. Last week’s showdown over SOPA and PIPA, the proposed legislation that would have eliminated piracy by punishing any site that linked to illegal content, is a good example of problem in the transmission layer — and it offers us the opportunity to ask how a more mature medium would handle the situation.

Changing copyrighted content from atoms to bits makes it easier to copy things and cheaper to distribute them.  The transmission layer for entertainment such as Hollywood movies and TV shows is a profit center that depends on exclusivity and scarcity — limited copies in few hands — but also on mass consumption — many viewers who must all come to the single source for the desirable item.  The economic model rests on the material properties of broadcast and cable networks, and the social arrangements (like advertising practices and geographically negotiated cable regulations) that have determined how we pay for them.

But digital transmission is peer to peer and many to many, not just many to one. The internet runs on the model of a shared resource as Clay Shirkey has pointed out, using the analogy of a Brooklyn bakery that no longer allowed children to put mass media cartoon figures on their birthday cakes for fear of copyright infringement. The image of kids and birthday cakes is a well-chosen loaded one, as was the image invoked by the U.S. Justice Department when it raided a luxury enclave in New Zealand to arrest the millionaire entrepreneurs behind Megaupload.

But the consumers of unlicensed digital media need not be seen as helpless, disappointed children pining for birthday cake or as hedonistic adults at a non-offshore orgy. As designers we can ask ourselves what is driving this business — what is the core need being served? It seems to me it is a desire for Hollywood entertainment on demand. The people flocking to the pirated media sites  are fans of the tv shows and movies they are downloading, and unwilling to wait until they can get it legally.  Some of them may want to get it free, but most of them just want to get content that is otherwise unavailable because they live in the wrong place. In other words, they are potential customers.

The entertainment industry lost billions of dollars when record companies insisted on holding onto  the CD as the technology of transmission, when their customer base was exchanging digital files. Now the movie studios, the  TV networks, and the cable companies are making a similar mistake, reacting too slowly to the shift to internet delivery, to the customer’s expectation that whatever they want to watch will be available on demand anywhere and anytime.  The only thing that will stop unlicensed sharing is greater legal availability of the digital content that is obviously in worldwide demand. As with the Napster problem that preceded  iTunes, the legal battle is a sign of a tremendous design opportunity: Who will come up with the right combination of encyclopedic archives, immediate availability, reliable delivery, and reasonable pricing that will turn a global media piracy crisis into a global digital market?

One response to “Disruptions of Transmission: the Piracy Problem

  1. Pingback: Disruptions of Transmission: Academic Publishing | Janet H. Murray's Blog on Inventing the Medium

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