Blog Post

Guest post: Stealing isn’t saving

(The following guest post was written by Alex Swartsel, who is a member of the Motion Picture Association of America’s communications team, and originated on the MPAA Blog. It was written in response to Janko Roettgers’ piece “Sorry, Hollywood: Piracy may make a comeback,” which we published Thursday.)

The disappointing thing about Janko Roettgers’s post for GigaOm’s NewTeeVee section yesterday is its casual promotion of the idea that stealing movies, TV shows and music is a perfectly acceptable way to save money.

Roettgers writes at length about recent changes in online video offerings, but his real point is this:

“The U.S. credit ratings downgrade, tumbling stocks and international instability have made not just financial analysts nervous this week. Consumers are also starting to wonder whether we’re about to enter another recession. Whenever that happens, people start to tighten their belts and cut unnecessary expenses — like paying for movies and TV shows… With memories of the housing slump still fresh, many people could simply return to BitTorrent and download movies for free instead of going to the movies or paying for VOD.” (emphasis ours)

There’s no question that when people aren’t certain about their finances — because they’re worried they or someone in their family will lose their job, or the prices of gas or other essentials will rise significantly — they change how they think about expenses and spend money. But if Roettgers had written that financially insecure families will shoplift clothes from a department store this fall to save on back-to-school costs for their children, he would be laughed out of the proverbial building, right?

T-shirts and jeans aren’t made out of zeroes and ones, at least not yet. But just because movies and TV shows and songs can now be packaged and distributed as data, not just as film reels or vinyl records or DVDs, and can be acquired or distributed with a few clicks of a mouse, doesn’t mean that the labor and time and money that went into making them is any less meaningful.

We doubt many people will subscribe to the kind of intellectual dishonesty that suggests that it’s fine — or really, that it’s inevitable — to steal as a way of saving. But it’s troubling that by suggesting that stolen content available on rogue sites and elsewhere is just another substitute good, Roettgers is tacitly arguing that content theft is legitimate and socially acceptable. Truth is, it’s neither.

Photo courtesy of (CC BY-SA 2.0) Flickr user Seth Anderson.

19 Responses to “Guest post: Stealing isn’t saving”

  1. “Roettgers is tacitly arguing that content theft is legitimate and socially acceptable. Truth is, it’s neither.”

    I think you’re wrong buddy, it’s socially acceptable for a ton of people!

  2. I am from outside the US and here there is no option of sites like hulu or netflix available to me. There is very little choice for me to access tv shows and movies on my computer legally at reasonable prices and even less that will give you the freedom to watch your product how you choose.
    I still fully believe the content companies are way behind in offering anything that can be considered a proper alternative to piracy.
    I mean seriously, I don’t want to come home from work at the end of the day and have to get out my credit card and pay out half my days pay just to sit down and watch a few tv shows whilst I eat my dinner.

  3. “if Roettgers had written that financially insecure families will shoplift clothes from a department store this fall to save on back-to-school costs for their children”

    They will.

    There are plenty of people who will do exactly that.

    You haven’t considered the lower class in your economic theology.

    Try as they may, not everyone can afford to pay for the essentials and they will take what they need, right or wrong.

    Is stealing to survive illegal? Of course.
    Is it malicious? Not at all.
    Is it wrong? Hardly.

    The usual department store’s markup is around 200%. Furthermore, most department stores are franchises with the support of a large corporation behind them.

    Losing a few t-shirts isn’t going to bring down the industry.

    Mr. and Mrs. Doe may have a foreclosed home, bankruptcy, no jobs, and four children in elementary school. Their families may be no better off then they are. Their town may not have a shelters. There may not be any place to get things like food and clothing for free. They may not want to beg.

    Is stealing their only option? No.
    Will they try to other ways? Probably.
    Will they run out of options? Eventually.

    How is this relevant to digital multimedia?

    People need entertainment like they need oxygen, clothing, shelter, food and water. Humans found ways to entertain themselves even before the dawn of civilization.

    If they can’t afford it, they can’t get it for free, and they can’t make their own–they will take it.

    The biggest problem with your analogy however, is the same one with every argument from the MPAA: physical property and digital property are /not/ essentially the same.

    I understand it’s your job to fight a changing world so that your industry can suck the last few pennies out of it’s dying markets, but sooner or later you have to admit defeat.

    That’s not to say there’s no profit in multimedia. Of course there is. Of course people will want to see their favorite bands live or watch movies on the silver screen now and then. There will always be initial broadcasts to plug commercials into.

    Easily replicated mediums, like digital files, CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes etc etc, are not a viable market any more. Accept it, or squander all of your resources fighting the inevitable.

    Broadcasts, live performances, and the theater experience are where you stand a chance to make money.

    Perhaps the MPAA doesn’t believe this is enough money to support the industry. Try it and be surprised.

  4. After reading this article, I am now getting out of the file sharing game. I no longer will seed my ubuntu torrents, I will even turn my back on development communities which only make tools.

    How could I have missed the connection that downloading bits is the same as physically stealing clothing or a TV?

    Furthermore, I should probably stop developing because the website can be used to advertise movies in ways that the media industries don’t like.

    Honestly, why the hell do we even have the internet? All it’s good for is all you thieving jackasses from stealing these hard working Amerian’s 1s and 0s! They put lots of effort into those 1s and 0s and they should have the right to shut down any medium they desire to protect them!

    I propose that we change the name of the internet from World Wide Web (WWW) to “Tom Cruise” so that everyone remembers just how much work went into this.

    You know who else supported sharing? The communists. That’s right, all you people who support culture are secretly just communist bastards.

    Of course artists could make more money by embracing a new business model, but who cares about the artists? Who it should really be about is the media INDUSTRIES the artists just MAKE the content, it is the industry who gets to decide what people really want and what country those people are allowed to be in.

    I am sorry media industries for running on a platform of an open culture, because really what I mean is not “share your life and let your friends take part in something that makes you feel emotions” I mean “you should be able to be lazy and rip everything off that you want”.

    Thank you Alex Swartsel, without you I would have never seen the light.

  5. I think the biggest problem I have with the writer’s point of view is that rights holders continue to insist on getting paid multiple times for the same content I may have already paid for. If I have paid my cable bill for TV shows, why should I have to pay again just to take it with my on my iPad. TV Everywhere isn’t a real solution to this, given the whacky variations in authentication and applications, and the basic issue of your particular cable company support it.

    The bottom line is customers want a bit more freedom in how they pay and use their content, and the more restrictions the rights holders place on it, the more attractive pirating becomes. I want portability, but I’ll be dammed if I am paying a buck a show just for the privilege.

  6. I read Roettgers’ piece as more of a cautionary tale for the film and music industry above all else. It was especially salient for me just this week when I, as a resident of The Netherlands, tried to purchase a digital download of a newly released album from Amazon UK (there is no Amazon NL) and was prevented from doing so “because of geographical restrictions on the product which you were attempting to purchase”

    While a copyright holder has every right to artificially segment markets any way they like (i.e. DVD region encoding), and while it made perfect business sense to do so back in the days when they had complete control of distribution, it seems a bit counterproductive and ill-advised in the modern age in which they are, rightly or wrongly, competing with “free”.

    Why must they make it so difficult for me to do the right thing? Denial is the most clear sign of an industry in decline.

  7. If copyright infringement is theft how come people are never sued for theft? It’s because it’s not theft.

    In law copyright infringement does not refer to actual theft, but an instance where a person exercises one of the exclusive rights of the copyright holder without authorization. Courts have distinguished between copyright infringement and theft, holding, for instance, in the United States Supreme Court case Dowling v. United States (1985) that bootleg phonorecords did not constitute stolen property and that “…interference with copyright does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud.

    Would it kill the MPAA to just be honest even once?

    • They aren’t sued for theft because the damages would be limited to the value of the item “stolen”, not the ridiculous fines the government sees fit to attach to movies and music. Theoretically, under our current laws, there would be a basis for a civil suit for theft (not that I agree).

      At any rate, it’s far more profitable to sue for $100,000+ per song than it is to sue for $0.99 a song.

  8. While I certainly disagree with Alex Swartsel’s position on this issue, I welcome the publication of it. The copyright industries tend to suppress discussion and comment at every opportunity. The more we discuss these issues, the more opportunity that the valid arguments will win on the merits. Since the position of the MPAA/RIAA is dubious from top to bottom, I say bring it on. People notice when you attempt to suppress discussion. It makes your arguments look weak.

    Alex is disappointed in Janko’s post because she (yes, I figured out she is a she and her name is actually Alexandra. This information came not from the MPAA blog, where she seems to be an anonymous author, but from the publicly available congressional staff salary database at The lady seems well connected, to say the least. Oddly, my only motivation was to get the he/she bit correct, and I came across a textbook play from regulatory capture field manual) believes that Janko is casually promoting theft as acceptable. I read the original post yesterday, and that is not the way that I took it.

    In my reading of the original post, Janko is simply pointing out the realistic consequences of our intellectual overlords deciding to make it much more difficult and potentially much more expensive for people to conviently access entertainment. It seemed to me to be a common sense analysis of the situation. Maybe I’m biased, we all

    The attempt, by apparently anyone who is paid by the money machine that is the copyright industry, to equate file sharing to shoplifting clothes has gotten pretty darn tiring. Somehow, the legacy industry folks don’t seem to grasp the idea of fixed costs vs. marginal costs and how it matters in the economics of production. I understand that it is expensive to make things. I write software. I make things. It costs a lot to do that. Once those very expensive things are made, there is one master copy. Then, in the world that we find ourselves in today, I can quite literally produce and distribute an infinite number of perfect copies of that one really expensive thing I made.

    I would like to see Alex do that with back-to-school clothes. Really, I would. The reason I would like to see this happen is because it would revolutionize our society and it would make people’s lives quite different than they are today. My suspicion is that if she pulled something like that off, she would be very unlikely to stand up for the rights of the legacy clothing manufacturers to hold on to their dying businesses. Unless, maybe, they hired her to lobby Senator Dodd or Senator Whitehouse. I’m sure that there is some price at which she would say just about anything, no matter how little sense it makes.

    • “intellectual overloards”……you’ll forgive me if i find this choice of words to be laughable. Anyone who can’t grasp the differences in the consepts of theft and copyright infringement cannot, in any meaningful sense, be considered my “intellectual overlord”. Her words ring hollow of any critical thought, let alone any critical thought of the article by Janko that she read.
      No, her words only show me how willfully ignorant she, and many in her industry, are happy to remain.

  9. Dave Warner

    Why is GigaOM publishing MPAA propaganda that continues to try and convince us that copyright infringement is the same as theft, when there are quotes from Thomas Jefferson that convince us it clearly isn’t? Why is GigaOM giving web space to an organization that spent decades expanding copyright to the point of absurdity and now wants us to pay them for every film made in the last 80 years, most of which would be in the public domain now? Why is GigaOM giving newshole to an organization has bought our malleable Congress and suppressed cultural exchange worldwide to line their pockets?

    These people practically wrote ACTA and PROTECT IP, legislation which could potentially break the Internet — the very thing that makes GigaOM possible. And you let them spout off this tripe that nobody respects anymore on here?

    People wonder why I don’t watch a lot of movies. The MPAA’s shameful attempts to lock our cultural heritage behind their paywall is a big reason why. Copyright should be opt-in and no longer than 28 years, as the forefathers intended. Because of this money-grubbing scum, it’s not. Keep these bastards out of our tech news feeds.

    • Ryan Lawler

      @Dave – I’ll take this, since it was my partly my decision to re-print the MPAA response on GigaOM. When I saw it on the MPAA blog, I thought it was a fair criticism of our original piece and figured it warranted distribution alongside Janko’s take on the topic. We want to have as many alternative viewpoints heard, even if those don’t necessarily agree with our own. As Todd McKinney argues in these comments, it was not our intent to encourage piracy, but to highlight the reality of the world that organizations like the MPAA and the Hollywood studios currently face. And in that world — rightly or wrongly — digital copies of most Hollywood and broadcast TV content can be easily found and downloaded (or streamed), if only the user is willing to look hard enough.

      Over the past few years, the studios and broadcasters were able to effectively combat this by making their content more available through cheap subscription plans like Netflix and free, ad-supported sites like Hulu. That made it easy for users to watch what they wanted, in a bright, well-lit place, without having to search Torrent sites. But it seems there’s been a general pullback from that strategy, and that, along with general economic malaise, could lead people to stop paying as much for content. In other words, a perfect storm for piracy. But what Janko is advocating for is not piracy, but just the opposite — more and easier access to legitimate streams of content.

  10. Blake Holland

    Yet many are saying a reason for the perpetuation of the London riots is young, unemployed adults seeing an opportunity to loot. Unfair to make that analogy?