Illegal file sharing is in the news again, as a report from the Australian government finds piracy on the decline thanks to the rise of legitimate streaming services.
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Respondents indicate they would be glad to pay for content rather than illegally download it, provided the alternatives are reasonable. Piracy, it seems, is not simply about getting free content, but about finding content in the most convenient manner possible.
The report brings me back to the days of Napster, which arrived in 1999 and was shut down in 2001 amidst a flurry of lawsuits—two years before the iTunes Store emerged with a legal alternative to Napster downloads. You would visit the site looking for any song and a centralized search engine would track massive libraries of shared music and link you to other users who had the song. You could then download the song and have your own copy.
Some used it to round out music collections or find out-of-print songs, while others loaded up hard drives with thousands of songs. But more than a music-discovery tool, Napster was also an early social network. When connected to another user, you could examine that person's library of songs. Often you would notice the person had a collection of music like yours, an immediate sign that your tastes were about the same.
In 2016, the social-networking aspect of piracy has been lost. The methodology has changed to massive centralized sites where people take part in a convoluted but efficient file-trading system organized around BitTorrent protocols. Torrent sites are routinely shut down by lawsuits, but because of their worldwide nature, new ones keep cropping up. Movies and music are passed around in the blink of an eye.
Still, the Australian report observes that new streaming services have reduced the amount of piracy. Now that they have options, people will pay a reasonable fee to Netflix or Amazon Video, for example. For music, Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, and others have emerged as popular piracy alternatives.
One reason illegal downloads thrive, however, are people in search of previous episodes of a hot TV series. You miss episode one and you are lost. But the networks are getting a clue; they too are providing streaming services, from HBO Now to CBS All Access, with the added benefit of embedded ads and other revenue generation methods.
The public has been trained by big media companies to desire and demand endless entertainment (perhaps as a form of sedation). Once the addiction is established, it is up to the business to keep the public fulfilled. If this is not done efficiently, the smarter addicts/customers will turn to piracy systems to get their "fix." But flood the public with endless streams and the problem solves itself.