news The chief executive of the Australian division of publisher News Limited has given a major speech slamming what he described as “copyright kleptomaniacs” supporting “scumbag theft”, arguing that Internet piracy was undermining the business case for the creation of great cultural works like never before.
“If you want to know why you should care about copyright, here’s a little exercise you can all do,” News Ltd chief executive Kim Williams — who formerly led News Ltd joint venture Foxtel — said during his keynote speech to the Australian International Movie Convention. The full speech has been published in online by Mumbrella. “Think about the ten greatest pieces of art that you couldn’t live without.”
“Then try to imagine a world in which those ten great works of art were never created. Because that’s what happens when there is no way for creators to enforce their rights … the copyright bandits of the paper age of Shakespeare and Dickens had nothing on the copyright kleptomaniacs of the digital age. And as a result, digital piracy is undermining the business case of cultural production to a greater extent than ever before.”
Williams pointed to a report published last year by a group named the Intellectual Property Awareness Foundation, a group supported by the Australian film and TV industry, which purported to show through a survey of some 1,644 Australian that 37 percent of locals admitted to having downloaded material locally, with some 60 percent of downloaders infringing copyright at least once per week — usually TV programs and movies. “… these persistent downloaders are far less likely than others to purchase DVDs, download pay-per-view programming, buy content from iTunes or even go to the movies,” said Williams. “That’s money out of all our pockets. And culture taken from all our lives. And cultural development taken from our nation.”
“All you have to do is type words like “download free UK TV” into a search engine and someone will tell you, quite brazenly, how to break the law and steal other people’s property and worse still ad serving technologies will deliver up ads supporting this scumbag theft with real Australian ads for major finance, telco and other products in Australia!”
Williams said everyone involved in the process of creating and legislating around content — “content providers, media companies, ISPs and especially legislators” — needed to recognise that we were now in a new era, and that copyright laws needed to change to reflect that fact.
“Digital property isn’t just a quirky add-on to our economy any more—increasingly it is dominating our economy, and it’s time we recognised its importance to our future prosperity. We have to protect it. Protecting it is not only fundamental to sustaining today’s creative industries and everyone they employ, but it’s fundamental to ensuring that we can build the bold digital companies of the future that politicians so often talk about.”
One common complaint of Internet users is that the content they want is not available legally online in the format they want, at an acceptable price. Williams specifically rejected this complaint. “I reject the assertion that there is any sort of shortage of digital content. Even if there were, it constitutes a very poor defence,” he said. “The fact is, more and more legal content is going on line every day. And there are more sites offering legal content, more easily and at lower cost to you computers and mobile devices.”
Williams’ comments come as debate continues to swirl within Australia’s technology sector about how the issue of Internet piracy should be handled.
In late June, for example, national broadband provider iiNet renewed its public attack on the content industry, using a high-profile report published in February to push the argument that the overall global content ecosystem is booming and that content providers should stop trying to stop Internet piracy and instead focus on new business models. In making his argument at the time, iiNet regulatory chief Steve Dalby extensively cited evidence about the continued global growth of the content industry presented in a landmark report published in February this year by Floor64, the publisher of Techdirt, a well-known global media outlet which often focuses on copyright issues in the context of the changing technological landscape.
The report, entitled ‘The Sky is Rising’, uses statistics published by the content industry itself to come to a number of conclusions positive about the future of content monetisation, including the ideas that for consumers, today is “an age of absolute abundance for content”, that for content creators, “it is an age of amazing opportunity”, and that for traditional middlemen, “the Internet represents both a challenge and an opportunity”.
“The sky is not falling; the facts outlined in the report clearly show that things have never been better for rights holders,” wrote Dalby in his bog post, citing examples such as Valve Software, whose Steam online gaming store has been hailed by video game fans for its ease of use and ability to lure players back into the legal world and away from Internet piracy. “This online digital distribution model is a salutary lesson for other content distributors,” wrote Dalby. “Instead of insisting their non-paying players were pirates and thieves, Valve took the behavior as a marketing failure and addressed it head-on it by adding value.”
iiNet itself has broadly failed in its own efforts to make films and TV episodes available to use userbase, with the company revealing last week that just 10,000 of its 824,000 customers had taken up the FetchTV platform it launched in mid-2010, representing only a tiny success rate. The jury is still out on how popular similar IPTV platforms such as Quickflix will be in Australia, although Telstra has signed up several hundred thousand customers for its T-Box product.
Are Internet pirates “scumbags”? Probably not, at least not most of them ;) Are their activities harming the broader content industry? Its not clear yet, and there is evidence on both sides. Do copyright laws need changing to reflect the new technological reality in Australia? I’m not sure.
But one thing is clear: This kind of ridiculously hardline no mercy approach taken by the content industry isn’t going to get it anywhere in practice; it won’t stop Australians downloading content online illegally, it won’t result in tough government enforcement action on the issue, and it won’t result in a general mindset change towards the practice either. The video content industry needs to follow the video gaming and music industries (eg Steam and iTunes) and start making their content more widely available online. Only then will this problem be addressed. It cannot expect to keep on tying its content to physical distribution mediums such as cable TV and DVDs and expect customers to put up with that behaviour in the digital age.
One more thing: It is important to note that Williams is mis-speaking here when he is labelling illegal downloads as “theft”. As Pirate Party Australia officer Mozart Olbrycht-Palmer recently documented exhaustively, downloading material online does not deprive the original creator of their property and is therefore copyright infringement — a breach of licence — rather than theft per se. This is an important legal point which often gets missed in this debate.