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He's Not A Pirate, He's A Very Naughty Boy

A little while ago, I read that in an effort to combat the huge volume of dodgy-quality clips of their shows and movies being uploaded to YouTube, the lads of Monty Python decided to upload high-quality clips of the selfsame material from their archives, along with a request to viewers that they actually buy some Python on DVD.

Which brings me to today, when I spotted a recently posted article on Slashdot about a massive increase in sales of Python DVDs as a result of their YouTube efforts. The article confessed to being anecdotal, so I thought I'd head over to the official Monty Python website to see whether they were saying anything about it. They weren't, but instead they'd linked to an article written by an editor of the myteevee.com website right there on the front page (true, I had to scroll down a little, but still), chronicling an apparent “16,280% increase in DVD sales” as of November 20, 2008.

The article states:

The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus 16-Ton Megaset climbed 740 places and now ranks at No. 5 in Amazon’s Movies & TV category... The nearest sales competitors include two DVD packages of perennially-popular TV series 24, the new release of Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work, and one of the most popular films of the year, The Dark Knight. Monty Python, on the other hand, hasn’t released any new material since 1983.

I'm sure many who know me personally could tell you about my rather anal stance on copyrighted works (Tony Mac, if you're reading this you're probably nodding your head); I prefer to buy stuff rather than copy it. I avoid accepting copies (a policy I wish I'd not excepted The Adventures of Ford Fairlane from; I'd prefer to have that particular hour and a half of my life excised from my memory if it weren't for the likelihood that I'd get curious about it again – but I will say I'm glad I didn't pay for the privilege of watching it) and I don't like loaning stuff I've paid for to people if I think they're going to rip it. At the very least, I look at it as a way of making sure I don't have a plethora of temptations to procrastinate.

But lately, I've been reading the scarily well-reasoned articles of Cory Doctorow, who's done a lot of thinking and writing about copyright (and the related topic of censorship) in the digital age. One fact which seems obvious in hindsight but which I never really thought about until he mentioned it is that with individual computers and the overall Internet improving by Moore's law at regular intervals, the copying and distribution of information isn't going to get any harder, no matter how fervently the Recording Industry Association of America might wish it would.

A corollary to the increase in processing power of computers is that any copy protection or digital rights management scheme can and, sooner or later, will be cracked; the people most often punished by DRM are those who actually do, in theory, the right thing and pay for protected product. Speaking personally, I know I was stopped from playing a paid-for copy of Star Wars: Empire at War by the game's DRM program; after a fruitless correspondence with LucasArts technical support I took the game back to EB and got a refund. It's not just computer games either; reports are rife on the Internet of online or storefront music download businesses (including companies who would seem to have the clout for the long haul, like Microsoft and Yahoo!) closing, effectively leaving their customers unable to move or back up their music (or, in a few instances, unable to play it) because the DRM authentication servers are no longer available.

Still, it's tempting to occasionally consider that DRM, however flawed, prevents the broad mass of consumers (well, you know, other consumers), unwashed, morally-bereft pirates that they are, from taking money out of the wallets of publishers – er, I mean, hard working artists. But that brings me to another of Doctorow's points: Anonymity is more damaging to the sales of creative works (or, let's face it, almost any information-based works) than piracy.

Doctorow naturally cites his own works, all of which can be downloaded from his website as un-DRMed PDFs and freely distributed as long as they adhere to the Creative Commons license under which they're published (give out out, quote and remix all you like, just don't charge for it and make sure you cite Doctorow as the source of anything you crib), as examples. All of his published work is also available as actual,dead-tree books from which he draws his income, and everything he's put out is still selling very well, thank you. Doctorow holds that offering his work for free in ebook format has actually helped sell dead-tree copies because they're the best kind of word-of-mouth advertising possible; "Here's this book I like; read it, you'll enjoy it."

I'll let him explain it better in his book Content, which you can of course download and read for free. But it's nice to be able to offer supporting evidence, especially evidence as strong as the success of Monty Python's YouTube effort. It's gratifying to see that human nature isn't as bad as some who hold and enforce copyright (you know who I'm talking about, probably better than I do) would have consumers believe. Further gratification about the Python situation comes from another paragraph in the MyTeeVee article:

Despite the troupe’s stated attempts to combat user uploads, many user-uploaded Python vids are still available on YouTube. Many of these vids are just as watchable as the official versions...

Okay, that doesn't exactly read like great news for the Pythons - until that fact is compared with the upward swing in sales of Python DVDs. Even though the "official" uploads still have competition, people are still watching the legitimate stuff and then going out and buying it. The object lesson here seems to be this: The most effective way to combat piracy is to treat people as though they're not pirates. In return, they'll start treating you like someone worth their money. And as said above, all those rotten pirates uploading those clips illegally are still giving the Pythons free advertising.

Anyway, where does that leave me and my stand on piracy? Well, let's face it; I've watched copyrighted material uploaded to YouTube on more than one occasion, including some vintage Top Gear from the nineties and eighties so I could show people what the program used to be like before the utter revamp at the beginning of the current decade (and how little Jeremy Clarkson has changed in the past couple of decades). The only DRM I have is Valve's software distributon service, Steam, and the unavoidable CCS protection scheme on each and every DVD. Still, I don't download cracked programs, the vast majority of CDs I've ripped are my own (I've made a natty ringtone for my new MotoRAZR2 phone out of my War of the Worlds CDs) and given the choice between spending Christmas or birthday money on big DVD boxed sets or getting them now by copying someone else's, I prefer to count the months. Finally, I'm still putting off ripping my Doctor Who boxed sets for Chookie per her request under the pretense of needing to buy some blank DVDs (yes, I'm too big a wuss to simply say "You have more disposable income than I; buy your own.")

In the end, I'd prefer to simply not buy a DRM-protected product than buy it and break it in some pathetic attempt to stick it to The Man; I figure that if someone thinks so little of me without even meeting me that he doesn't want me to have his product that badly, why should I trust his word that his product is of any quality?

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My concern isn't about sticking it to the man, but making sure the artist get their due. Production houses and media conglomerates like Sony are making it harder and harder for artist to make a living. They control so much of the intellectual property that the folks that have the talent whether it be the actors to lighting crew are getting a smaller piece of the pie. This causes certain resentment and even strikes like the writers strike most recently. Also with the production houses controlling so much of what we view, the possibility of good content becomes less and less. Fortunately, their are still enough avenues like Television and the Internet that are helping to get around these big production houses. Film however is definitively suffering. An example of this is with the most recent movie The Golden Compass. While not a success in America it has had a huge success internationally. It also ran afoul criticisms from the Catholic Church. Because New Line has the control it can determine whether to film a sequel or not and at this point it has decided not. I don't know how it can pass up on an opportunity to make almost $400 Million in sales, but it has. If it was up to the artist, it would be done.

All said and done, I would prefer to pay for what I watch knowing that some it going back to the artist who make it.

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