The Infantile Thief

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The artificial scarcity made me do it.

This is the insipid defense submitted by what seems like a growing number of self-confessed digital pirates.

The argument goes like this: It’s OK to steal high-value entertainment content if you disagree with the business practices of the companies you’re stealing from. To justify the theft, the fashionable thing to do is complain that old content-windowing strategies and cable TV’s channel-bundling model — or both — are “broken” and are forcing otherwise honest citizens to commit piracy.

Consider this plaint from former TechCrunch writer MG Siegler: “Help! I’m Being Forced To Pirate Game Of Thrones Against My Will!

Siegler claims he would “gladly pay” to be able to watch Season 2 of Game of Thrones. “But I have no way to do so, outside of forking over an obscene amount of money on a monthly basis to a cable company, and/or waiting a year,” he writes. “I’m just not willing to do that. My hand is being forced.”

There is a category of people who cry when they don’t want to do what is required to get something, but then try to take it anyway: They are called toddlers.

Siegler’s point of view is hardly isolated. Check out this cartoon on The Oatmeal (also about stealing Game of Thrones); this Salon piece, which wonders, Is It OK to Steal ‘Downton Abbey’?; and my blog post Can You Turn Pirates Into Purchasers?

Frustration about HBO’s content-distribution strategy shows a lack of understanding about the economics of the pay-TV industry. Start with the fact that content bought à la carte would cost consumers more than buying it in a bundle, while at the same time it would be less lucrative for cable networks.

But couldn’t HBO sell its own bundle of content directly to consumers? Or via Netflix? Again, there are economic reasons why it doesn’t make sense: Pay TV distributors are huge marketing engines for HBO, and biting the hand that feeds it by going over-the-top is unacceptably risky for HBO. The downside of people like MG Siegler throwing up their hands and resorting to piracy is considerably smaller (for now).

Is forcing someone to buy cable TV when all they want is Game of Thrones irrational and unfair? No, not any more than it is when Disneyland charges a single (steep!) entrance fee for unlimited rides (an example cited by The New Yorker’s James Surowieki).

This is, after all, entertainment we’re talking about — not access to clean drinking water. As much as we First Worlders like to think so, being able to participate in watercooler conversations is not what you could call a basic human right.

Meanwhile, it should be noted, Netflix follows the very same content-bundling model as cable TV: For one monthly price, you get access to a big bucket of video. And some or most of that will be stuff you have zero interest in watching.

Now, after once downplaying the value of exclusive content, Netflix execs have secured rights to shows you won’t be able to get anywhere else, including Steven Van Zandt’s Lilyhammer and David Fincher’s forthcoming House of Cards.

Never mind that Lilyhammer isn’t as entertaining as Game of Thrones. Should we condemn Netflix’s exclusivity strategy and try to illegally download Lilyhammer to express our utter displeasure at the company’s decision to force us to purchase a whole Netflix subscription — when all we wanted was to watch Van Zandt parade around the Norwegian tundra muttering F-bombs in his jowly Newyawkese?

Or, should we act like grownups and, if we want something, pay to get access to it legitimately?


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