When media giants make it harder for people to pay for content, they also make it easier for people to justify stealing it.
If you bypass the cash register walk out of a shop with the DVD box set of Game of Thrones shoved up your jumper, that’s called “stealing”. If you think otherwise, you can tell your story to the judge. Yet for some reason people seem to think that downloading an entire series of Game of Thrones via BitTorrent is a victimless crime. Actually, depending on where they draw their moral line in the sand, people often manage to convince themselves that it’s not a crime at all.
The Australian copyright police are reluctant to prosecute individual downloaders, partly to avoid the PR disaster that ensued in the US, but that doesn’t mean that downloading Game of Thrones and other shows isn’t a crime. Some pirates see downloading as the digital equivalent of “borrowing” someone’s newspaper, which they were never going to pay for anyway, so no sale is lost and no harm is done. Others argue that their favourite shows are too hard to watch on television, due to the lag between US and Australian broadcasts or the fact that Australia’s free-to-air networks tend to mess with the schedule and cram in so many intrusive ads. Give people legit download services and some will still claim that they’re too expensive, or that the picture quality is disappointing. Even free Catch Up TV services aren’t enough to bring some pirates back into the fold.
BitTorrent users often claim that they would do the right thing, if the content providers didn’t make it so hard. They have a point, as it often seems that broadcasters are doing their best to drive people away. At the same time, this attitude reeks of the overblown sense of entitlement that’s all too common on the internet these days; “it’s my *right* to watch Game of Thrones, so it’s the network’s responsibility to make it cheap and easy or else I’m fully entitled to ‘borrow’ it”. You’d almost have more respect for these people if they simply admitted that they download Game of Thrones because they don’t want to pay for it, rather than continue the charade that they’ve been forced into it.
There are some people who will always do the right thing, on principle. Meanwhile there are some people who will always steal everything, sometimes also on principle. The goal for content producers is to win over the majority of morally ambiguous people in the middle, who are prepared to do the right thing if it’s not too inconvenient. Two decades of beating pirates with a stick has got us nowhere, but the carrot of convenient online alternatives has been far more effective in the last few years.
It seems each new legit option to watch movies and TV shows wins more people away from piracy. Obviously some people are prepared to pay for online content, otherwise the likes of the iTunes Store, Netflix and Quickflix would have gone out of business a long time ago. Their pay-per-view fast-tracking efforts let you watch new episodes of your favourite shows within hours of them screening on TV.
With this in mind, Foxtel’s push to lock away HBO hits like Game of Thrones seems like a massive step backwards. Quickflix has just announced plans to offer each episode of Games of Thrones within hours on screening on Foxtel, just like iTunes already does. But after this year, Foxtel’s Game of Thrones deal will kill off iTunes and Quickflix’s fast-tracking program — stopping them from offering episodes until the entire season has screened on Foxtel. Such a deal may or may not win Foxtel a few new subscribers, but it will certainly drive more people to BitTorrent — and they’ll feel completely justified because they’ve been robbed of legitimate alternatives.
It’s easy to paint Foxtel as the bad guy here, but it’s really HBO to blame for agreeing to such a deal in the first place. These kinds of deals might make sense in the US or UK where pay TV take-up is much higher, but not in Australia where pay TV penetration has struggled to make it past 30 percent. Foxtel obviously put down enough cash to keep the bean counters at HBO happy, but abandoning 70 percent of Australians doesn’t seem like a smart long-term strategy when online downloads were finally starting to win people over. Many people will argue that HBO has forfeited its right to complain about piracy when it simply refused to take their money unless they signed up for Foxtel.