If you’re a creator (artist, musician, author, etc.), publisher, copyright holder or anyone else who deals in intellectual property, there’s one basic rule about the Internet that you should pay attention to: People Are Probably Going to Steal Your Stuff Online.

It’s been over a decade since Napster first launched, and although there have been steps forward in policing of intellectual property, new distribution deals and other major changes to the Internet, the fact remains that people steal a lot of stuff online.  Some may argue that sharing files or piracy isn’t stealing, but really, it is (of course with the exception fo file sharing of material that is approved for sharing). The simple fact is there are a lot more people online now, and it’s still easy to access unlicensed copies of copyright-protected material.

The point is to keep this truth in mind as you decide how you’re running your business.  Until there’s some sort of serious crack down by the government, or people suddenly have a major change of heart, they’re going to be taking your stuff without your permission – not everyone, of course, but a lot of people.

Some people who “steal” online do it knowingly, and maliciously – but that’s not the case for everyone (and I’m willing to bet those “thieves” are actually a very small minority).  The bigger reason behind this is that you, as a copyright holder, probably aren’t giving them another option.  The Internet generation has been trained to expect things instantly – and when they don’t get it instantly, they’re going to figure out a way to do it.  They’re an ingenious bunch – just take a look at most of the more notorious examples of services that have been scrutinized for distributing copyright materials without a license.  Names like Napster, YouTube, Scribd, Docstoc, Grooveshark, and even The Pirate Bay.

The thing that all of these services have in common, what really drove their popularity, was not simply that what they had to offer was free, but rather what they had to offer.  They had content available that people actually wanted to be able to access.  Not only this, but they had pretty much everything people would want to access.

Hulu has been successful so far, in terms of visitors and in terms of monetization, but only to a point.  Their ultimate weakness is in not having all content available from all the television networks.  Not only this, but the content they do have is still somewhat limited (for instance, FOX only allows a few episodes of Glee to be broadcast).   For the rest of that content, what are people supposed to do?  Not everyone wants to buy the entire series of Glee on DVD or wait to have it delivered via Netflix (it’s on “Very Long Wait” right now, by the way) – but FOX isn’t giving any other option.  Hulu has shown there are ways to monetize the content – and based on the successes of services like iTunes, we know people are willing to pay for content they want to access.

The problem here is that the copyright holders are unwilling to license the channels that allow people to access the content they want to in a way they prefer.  If you’re a musician and you don’t want to license your music to online services, you need to accept the fact that people are going to find other ways to access it that might not match with the way you’re trying to force them. If you’re a publisher and don’t want to license eBooks, people are going to start looking for the places where they can get the books they want anyway.  People want immediate access, and they’re willing to pay for it – but the second you start telling them “you’ll have to buy the physical copy” is the second you’ve very likely turned a customer into a potential pirate.

Don’t let ideologies or past behavior guide your future. People’s buying behaviors are changing, but if people value what you have to offer they’re likely to pay for it.  You just need to let them access it through methods they prefer.

People are probably going to steal your stuff online. Remember that, and try to give them a better alternative.

People Are Probably Going to Steal Your Stuff Online
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3 thoughts on “People Are Probably Going to Steal Your Stuff Online

  • February 18, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Great article – you’ve made the key point that one of the biggest drivers behind online piracy is availability, not money. If the music industry had made their content available online with the same speed and efficiency as Napster, regardless of any pricing involved I’m sure the labels wouldn’t be in the same deep water they are now.
    And the other problem with a lot of online content is that sites such as Hulu are geotarded – I can’t access it from Australia. I buy a lot of mp3s from Amazon.com these days (the prices are great and there’s no DRM) but I have to use a proxy in order to spend my money there since only UK users are authorised to buy mp3s there – ridiculous!

  • February 18, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    My guess is that the restrictions for where you can access the digital content from on sites like Hulu and Amazon isn’t their decision, but rather a result of different copyright holders/administrators in different territories, as well as different copyright laws governing what licenses are needed in those territories.

    Licensing is not an easy task – and when you need different licenses for different parts of the world, likely with different publishers, it’s even harder.

  • February 18, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    Oh for sure – the ball must be in the license-holder’s court in terms of geotarding, but it’s self-defeating as they have the most to lose. Surely Amazon, etc, would love to be able to sell music globally?
    I have no doubt that licensing is horrendously complex but it seems to me that copyright laws and licensing terms desperately need to catch up to the fact that the internet is a global marketplace (albeit in many ways an unofficial one) however much they try to resist it.

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