OPINION: The April 16 guilty verdict in The Pirate Bay case isn't as good for content owners and distributors as they might think. For all piracy's many faults, there can be marketing opportunities as fans rush to download a movie or TV show only later to pay to watch it. Piracy isn't good. It's just not all bad.
Friday's guilty verdict in the Pirate Bay trial should
surprise no one. But that doesn't mean justice was served. My colleague Larry
Seltzer says, "Lock 'em up
." He's a security guy, and Torrents are notorious for spreading malware.
Of course, he would praise the verdict. Not I. For all those copyright holders slapping
one another's backs in congratulations, I want to slap you across the face.
Prosecuting Pirate Bay and services like it will kill the golden goose. You
lose by winning.
Hollywood and record labels are beaucoup crazy about piracy
and trading of stuff online. I understand that content owners want to get paid
for the work they distribute. But there's evidence that many people stealing
eventually will buy-or watch-anyway. File trading isn't just about free
distribution of copyrighted content without permission. It's a form of marketing
that too few content distributors have tapped into. Not all of them are
clueless. Whether or not executives will admit it, NBC Universal learned the
value of BitTorrent from file trading of new "Battlestar Galactica" episodes in
autumn 2004. NBC Universal owns Sci Fi Channel and it is partner with Fox in
year-old legal file streaming site Hulu
Before YouTube, There
A May 2005 Mindjack Story, "Piracy is Good?: How
'Battlestar Galactica' Killed Broadcast TV
," explains how file trading
helped the then fledging Sci Fi series. The first episode in the reimaged
series aired in the U.K. on Oct. 18, 2004, but not in the United States until
Jan. 14, 2005. American BSG fans were anxious to see the series, and their British
counterparts obliged by uploading Torrents of premiere episode "33" within a few
hours of airing. Other episodes followed similar pattern. BSG fans here got a
three-month lead on U.S. television.
"While you might assume the Sci Fi Channel saw a significant
drop-off in viewership as a result of this piracy, it appears to have had the
reverse effect: The series is so good that the few tens of thousands of people
who watched downloaded versions told their friends to tune in on Jan. 14,
and see for themselves," wrote MindJack's Mark Pesce. "From its premiere,
'Battlestar Galactica' has been the most popular program ever to air on the Sci
Pesce asserted: "BitTorrent creates the conditions for
something I've termed 'hyperdistribution'-a distribution channel which is even
more efficient than broadcasting."
Interestingly, Sci Fi got into the action by offering select
episodes for full-length streaming, including Season 1 finale
"Pegasus" and later "Scar" and "Lay Down Your Burdens,
Part 2." Sci Fi's approach of streaming some episodes was highly unusual
for early 2005; pretty much nobody was doing it. The world of online video
viewing was very different then. There was no YouTube when "33" hit the
Torrents. YouTube emerged as a concept in February 2005; the first video was
uploaded about two months later. Nor could people buy TV shows from Apple's
iTunes Store, which didn't offer programs for sale until October 2005.
Sci Fi upped the online engagement, by offering "Webisodes"
that ran between BSG seasons. Later BSG producers spun off storylines and
characters into Webisodes separate from the TV show's main plotlines. The
practice engaged fans, rather than alienate them-all starting from BSG episode
piracy in October 2004. The network could have treated piracy as lost revenue, but
instead chose to embrace it as a marketing opportunity. Sci Fi even trumped the
pirates by offering more high-quality episodes streamed for free.