Thoughts on Digital Piracy as advertising

by on Mar.01, 2012, under Articles, Books, Culture, Films, Internet, Opinions, Technology, Television, Videos, Visual Media

Neil Gaiman brings up some really good points for books. But I’d like to expand the conversation to all media and fill in a few gaps I think he missed.

Thoughts on Digital Piracy across all media

What should have been said above is “Mileage may vary”. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Piracy does something really interesting in my opinion. It puts the power and control in the hand of the consumer rather than the distributor. What I mean by this is that consumers, thanks to piracy and actual legal forms of free media distribution, are allowed to consume content, then decide to support the content by paying money. It says “Here. View this. If you like, please realize that the person who made it needs money in order to make more like it. Pay them.”

Reasons why it works

And this works! Neil Gaiman just said so! People all over have been saying so. But why does it work? It works because of several reasons.

1. Super Fans
2. Proof of Quality
3. Better Service

Super Fans

Super Fans is what Neil Gaiman primarily talks about. If you have a “favorite author” or “favorite musician” or “favorite director”, you’re a super fan. You like that creator’s work. If you’re able, you’ll spend money to buy anything that creator makes, even stuff you’ve pirated in the past. You’ll buy stuff they make later, even if you know it won’t be as good (See M. Night Shyamalan’s fans).

Proof of Quality

Proof of Quality is one of the reasons why Super Fans exist. Piracy lets you decide if what you consumed is good and worthy of your money and it is a safe bet that the next thing created by the same people will be about the same quality. This is a fact of creation. It is why authors get multi-book deals and musicians get multi-album deals. If you’re not a consistent artist, you don’t tend to get a lot of support.

Better Service

Better Service is not always a reason but it is still a factor. Better Service includes things like extras on physical media. Theaters that provide a distraction(ish) free environment. Special editions or better quality product. This is what will make someone go and buy a physical copy of an eBook their pirated, because they want a copy of the book on their shelves they can access whenever they like, or can loan to people who don’t use eBooks, etc. Or for those people who love commentary tracks on their DVDs or BRDs.

Reasons why it doesn’t work

That is why a lending/piracy/give away marketing works. There are also (oddly named) reasons why it doesn’t work:

1. A lack of an icon
2. Popular Memory
3. Merchandising
4. Lack of Quality

Strangely enough not all of these are opposites of the reasons above but they almost all relate.

A lack of an icon

A lack of an icon is basically a problem for specific types of media. People like to support the people or groups which create the stuff they like. If what they pirated has no real branding or icon for the consumer to idealize and support, it is much less likely that the distributors of that media will see any profit gains. Examples of this include movies that don’t hype that they were created by a certain actor, director, producer, or writer. These days that is very few and far between but they do still exist and movies, despite branding, aren’t always consistently good even with the same “brand names” working on them. Books are the other extreme, where your icon is almost always the author (or in L.J. Smith’s case, her name as a brand).

Popular Memory 

Popular memory is related to a lack of an icon. People are more likely to support media if it stays on their mind. The best examples of this are television and books. Television is episodic so you’re exposed to it multiple times over short periods of time. Books are a long-term reading commitment, meaning you read the entire thing in small chunks repeatedly over a long period of time. The repeatedly is the key point here. The more you repeat something, the more you remember it, the more likely you are to remember to spend money on it later (linking back to the Proof of Quality) reason above. The opposite examples are movies and music, to a lesser extent. Both are short-form media, meaning you consume it very quickly and rarely repeat or repeat very infrequently. This isn’t true in all cases (some people like listening to the same album on repeat, and some people have children who demand to watch Cars 5 times in a single day) but the less you’re exposed to the media, the less likely you are to remember it and appreciate it, or spend money on it.


Merchandising is basically the opposite of Better Service, when it related to buy copies of your pirated media or buying a pirated media’s sequel. The idea is that if your media doesn’t have anything out there that is worth paying money for, other than the legitimate copy of the media itself, you’re not likely to see a profit return for offering it for free. People like Neil Gaiman have an entire back catalog to sell to you after you read American Gods. Movies, unless they’re apart of a series, have a harder time getting someone to go by similar movies, just because they were distributed or created by the same person, without a lot of extra marketing.

Lack of Quality

But the  biggest reason why this model will fail is if your media sucks. This is lack of quality. Neil Gaiman doesn’t make bad things so giving away some, or even all of it, will hit cause people to want to spend money to support him for it.  As an extreme example, you can’t make a movie like The Last Airbender and expect pirated copies to generate revenue for physical copies or subsequent films.

This last point I find really interesting

And I find it interesting because I see it as a good reason why this type of economic model should possibly be embraced. It will force distributors to make quality media because if the media doesn’t have a fan base, they’re not going to make money. Of course there are still downsides to this. For example it will homogenize media, as the media will try to cater to the largest market while still being good. Minority markets that don’t have the money won’t get high cost media.

This is completely different from the current model of economics employed across almost all industries. With a few exceptions (like the ad-supported model (television) or subscription model (Netflix)), most economic transactions require that you pay the person first, then consume the product. This product could be good or bad. It’s a buyer beware system. Remember that time you went to a movie on opening night and despite critics and trailers, it sucked? Yeah. That goes away. It’s like the theater will give you a money back guarantee as long as you are at least entertained.

So what now?

Oh and that “Mileage may vary” caveat. It should be obvious now but this method of advertising via giving things away for free, or letting piracy help spread word of mouth, doesn’t work as well across all media (for the reasons stated above).

Ultimately I believe that the real and lasting solution to piracy, regardless of media, is offering a better service than piracy provides. People will always pay for convenience and quality.


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