(mis)adventures in software development...

26 August 2014

Piracy Propaganda

Category Technology

Australia cares, just not about Village Roadshow.

Village Roadshow ran ads in newspapers over the weekend consisting of an open letter from its CEOs expressing much butthurt over piracy and “copyright theft”.

I really wish the language surrounding allegedly “illegal” downloading would change. It doesn’t really make much sense to talk about digital copies being “theft”. And from a legal perspective, there is actually no such thing as “copyright theft” — only copyright infringement.

But then, hyperbolic rhetoric is one of the tools the movie industry like to use against the competitive threat the online world represents.

Of course, the irony here is that regardless of terminology or language used, none of these nefarious “pirates” doing the dastardly digital deeds of “stealing” by making copies are likely to be reading a weekend newspaper.

Not to mention the hypocrisy of Village calling copyright infringement “theft” when their movie ticket and popcorn prices amount to highway robbery.

But, obviously, the purpose of the ad was less about preventing illegal downloading, and more an attempt to reframe the debate in a way that benefits them, while doubling as a promotion for an upcoming movie release.

The ad is all the more pathetic for being such obvious propaganda from an industry struggling to find relevance in the digital age. Village Roadshow is doing what crony capitalists usually do when faced with a problem of consumer choice or the free market reducing their profit margins — running to the government to help them out by further restricting consumer choice and market competition.

It’s regulation over innovation. The Australian way, when it comes to business.

So we have an emotive plea for the government to restrict the rights of internet users, under the pretext of saving movie companies from the scourge of people infringing their intellectual property.

Which, if you think about it, is a weird thing to complain about, and even weirder to spend thousands of dollars for the privilege of complaining about it in newspaper advertising.

They’re essentially complaining about the price signals the market is providing them. Illegal downloads are an indication that while some people might want their product, they’re not willing to pay the prices being asked. Or they want the product via a more convenient distribution model — digital download, or online streaming, perhaps viewed on a mobile device.

You would think if the movie industry had any idea about the basics of running a business, they’d spend more time working out how to best monetize these new consumer trends towards online content consumption, and less time lobbying governments to further skew they playing field in their favour. Or running newspaper ads claiming the sky is falling.

In a way, the movie companies are also complaining that many people are keen to consume the products they produce. A problem many industries would dearly like to have. It’s a sign the movie industry is doing something right. Or at least a sign their marketing departments are doing something right — doing an excellent job of convincing people they should consume their formulaic, cliched crap.

All of which suggest the real problem faced by the movie industry is not “piracy”, but changing consumer habits and preferences, driven partly by changes in technology. This would suggest the solution lies more in working out how to effectively monetize the trend to online consumption, rather than restricting the online rights and digital freedoms of the masses.

But that would be entirely too sensible for an industry too lazy to innovate. An an industry that has spent so much money on political donations, they’re determined to get their money’s worth.

Of course, those complaining the loudest about illegal downloads are movie distribution companies. They feel threatened not just by the very small percentage of their movies that are pirated online, but by the very internet itself. As more and more content moves to an online distribution model, their business model becomes increasingly obsolete.

It’s difficult to feel sorry for them though. They’ve had things pretty good for a long time, with their government sanctioned oligopolies. Now that the internet is undermining their monopolistic ways, they go running back to the government to protect their artificially inflated profit margins. They want the government to put as many artificial restrictions on the internet as possible, just so they can artificially prolong their profit margins in the face of changing technology and consumer behavior.

After decades of treating their customers with contempt (through high prices, poor customer service, releasing movies much later in Australia than other countries, etc) Village Roadshow are trying to portray themselves as the victim of the illegally downloading hordes, now that technology allows consumers the choice of bypassing their crappy business practices.

It’s weird and completely disingenuous for a such a soulless corporate entity as Village Roadshow to try and elicit sympathy out of this. After all, it’s not as if they’ve made much of a contribution to the movie going experience. Theirs is the mainstream multiplex experience that focuses on quantity rather than quality. Along with price gouging.

Compare and contrast this to a place like the The Astor Theatre, which provides a more “authentic” movie going experience, and one that many people actually care about. The two exist on opposite ends of a spectrum in many ways, and there’s a kind of weird irony that this ad ran on the same weekend that The Astor announced it will close in early 2015.

There were a lot of genuinely disappointed people after The Astor announced it would be closing. The emotion didn’t have to be forced or manipulated through full page newspaper ads. Can’t imagine anyone would really care if any individual Village cinema shut down. Or even the whole company.

I suspect on some level, Village Roadshow might be aware of this.

The emotional language of the ad also seems to reflect either a delusion about their importance to the local movie industry, or a weird insecurity about their place in it.

If Village Roadshow were to disappear, maybe the Australian movie industry would too. Or at least part of it. But I doubt it. If there is any money to be made, another company would step in to make it. Or to create a business model that works in a new, online era. It’s quite arrogant of Village Roadshow to think just because they can’t make money making Australian movies, then no one else can.

The fact that independent cinemas like The Astor have existed so long — especially given the many market forces working against them, not to mention competition from the likes of Village — suggests there does exist an audience passionate about films and the cinema experience.

Australia does care.

It’s just that Australia doesn’t care about the corporate tools at Village Roadshow.