Pirates to the rescue

Let me speak candidly: this event erred on the side of farce. There was an hour segment devoted to holding a mock "pirate's court", cue slanging match between the music industry executives and the anti-copyright lobbyists in the audience- understandably divided on the notion of copyright infringement.

The second half was more promising. A panel comprising Graham Linehan, creator of Father Ted and The IT Crowd; tech writer Wendy Grossman; Jamie King, writer and director of Steal This Film; and economist Thierry Rayna tackled the issue of piracy - will illicit technologies shape the long-term future of British commerce?

The consensus from the panel was this: the music and media industries have had a stranglehold on consumers for too long (I shan't recount Linehan's hilarious Disney rant here; needless to say it was colourful and impassioned). When the customer fights back and demands content when, where and how they want it, they are demonised by initiatives like the Digital Economy Bill.

Ultimately, Linehan hit the nail on the head. "Why hasn't mainstream media worked out a way for people to buy single episodes online for a few quid?" he asked. "There's no point demonising the consumer for downloading content, when there's no easy, one-click method of paying for instant downloads."

"And you can't use outdated arguments to hold back piracy," adds Linehan. "Like that advert that says, 'You wouldn't steal a car'. No. But I would if I could download it."

Intellectual property professor (and self-confessed anarchist) Jamie King sees this as an incredible opportunity for entrepreneurs. The media industry has failed to address the issue for over a decade - "What's to stop one guy in his bedroom providing the solution?" In fairness, a few trail-blazing SMEs are already looking to fill the gap. Take Lovefilm, Simon Calver's movie and game rental outfit, which allows subscribers to stream films and series' direct from the site as part of their monthly fee. And Apple may have cornered the market in music downloads with iTunes, but it was UK-based 7Digital that offered the first DRM-free download platform - where people actually pay for the privilege.

Wendy Grossman makes the additional point that brand owners are failing to capitalise on the incredible marketing power of the illegal download market. "Social networks - including the much-demonized P2P networks - provide the greatest mechanism for word of mouth in the history of human culture," she says. "And, as we all know, word of mouth is the most successful marketing available, at least for entertainment. It also seems obvious that P2P and social networks are a way for companies to gauge the audience better before investing huge sums."

Grossman also believes that lessons learned from the pirates will spawn a whole new wave of entrepreneurialism: artists turned start-ups. "The real threat is always going to be artists taking their business into their own hands. For every Lady Gaga there are thousands of artists who, given some basic help can turn their work into the kind of living wage that allows them to pursue their art full-time and professionally. I would think there is a real business in providing these artists with services. This was the impulse behind the foundation of CDBaby, and now of Jamie King's VoDo. In the long run, things like this are the real game-changers."

Pirates have long been a disruptive force on the status quo, whether it be on the high seas, or via Bit Torrent. Old media businesses need to adapt to compete. But in the meantime, it's a niche that's ripe for entrepreneurs.

Have pirate technologies helped you evolve your business model? Tell us your story - leave a comment below.

By Rebecca Burn-Callander

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