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By Michael Rogers Columnist
Special to MSNBC
updated 7/28/2005 12:38:35 PM ET 2005-07-28T16:38:35

Memo to Hollywood: Based on reader reaction to last week’s column, "Will Hollywood Lock up Our Movies? ," you may actually be able to avoid the online fate of the recording industry (in March, 275 million songs were downloaded illegally versus 25 million online song purchases).  But you’re going to have to choose copy protection that gives buyers flexibility, along with a whole lot of consumer education. And under no circumstances use Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lopez as spokespeople for the cause. 

The reader reaction, in an unscientific way, suggests a distinct attitude shift since I last addressed the issue of digital piracy in 2003. Back then, my suggestion that the music industry had a right to protect its intellectual property brought a barrage of e-mail, ranging from self-righteous to outright nasty, running more than 90 percent against the industry. 

This time — with movies folded into the mix — there’s been another barrage of e-mail, but this time about 60 percent is in favor of reasonable digital copy protection. It’s not quite clear what’s triggered this change of heart, but it would seem that the rise of legal alternatives like iTunes as well as the greater perceived value of movies are part of the shift.

James H. Smith, Cary, NC: I have to agree with the artist and corporations, even though I am dismayed by the proposed "broadcast flag" and built in control chip concepts. However, it is the thieves that are causing these "innovations" to be developed. I'm not an artist or a media company, but stealing is still stealing, no matter what kind of "liberation" you want to call it. The artist and studios didn't take the time, energy and expense to create their products for nothing. They did it to earn an income and a profit so that they can create more of what we enjoy.

Jeff Tigner, Kent, WA: Why should anyone be able to obtain movies/music, etc., without paying "royalties" to those involved in the production/distribution of said products? You wouldn't walk into a Wal-Mart store and just pick up what you wanted and walk out, and expect there to be no ramifications, would you?

Casey, Montana: This is a real bummer for those of us who follow the rules. I buy movies, CDs and digital television with cash. I have never pirated any of them, as I feel that it is a slap to the face of the talented people who bring us these entertainments. Unfortunately, it is a rising trend that American's feel that they entitled to anything they can get for free.

Daylynne Starr, Tacoma, WA: This is bad news for us who love our movies and TV in the home! However, piracy is getting SOOOOO bad that you can hardly buy a legal copy of a DVD on EBay!  The industry must do something so we can continue to get high quality shows.

Of course, some familiar arguments in favor of personal media piracy still arise:

Ashley, Woodland Hills, CA: If the entertainment industry is so unhappy with consumer piracy, they should start producing buy-worthy products. If they make music or movies that are worth the money I would have to pay, then I will pay.

Somehow this reminds me of the old Woody Allen joke about the two women dining at a resort: “This food is terrible,” says one. “Yes,” replies the other, “and the portions are so small.”

Randy, Hillside, NJ: The day that J.Lo stops buying her $12 million jewels, and has to fight to live paycheck to paycheck like the rest of us, I will respect her. Celebrities taunt us with their multimillion dollar decadent lifestyles, while the great majority of Americans are living well below a comfortable standard of living. Yes, I do download music.  Why? Because I don't think that I should pay for someone else’s lavish lifestyle. The day that Brittney Spears works eight hours like I do to make $10 an hour and has to worry about feeding her baby and paying the mortgage, I will stop.

Anonymous: I have worked 21 years as a journeyman union stagehand, mostly live concert venues. It sickens me to see the top-heavy pay structure in the music industry, while guys like myself risk our lives and work endless hours for miniscule pay. I take whatever music I want. I won't pay the overblown CD prices to make the bloated fat-cat pigs richer.

Joe, Everett, WA: The simple solution to the problem would be lower prices which, when translated into lower profits, is unacceptable to the Hollywood fat cats. They can't justify their zeal for "protecting" artists’ income when all they actually pay the artists is a pittance. Part of the huge money Hollywood generates goes straight to the pockets of politicians who then pass all kinds of bills to protect their own source of income, always under cover of artists' rights. I hope the general public will be wise enough to see what is really going on and act accordingly.

Greg, Oregon: The media companies are on a slippery path downhill if they stay the course. They are spending tons of money trying to protect their content. This cost is being passed onto consumers. As prices rise on content, more and more consumers are going to be pushed out of the legal market for media content and into the illegal market. There is no way that I would pay $5 for a hacked CD if I can get a legit one for $6. However, if you were to change the equation and say I have to pay $15 for a legit CD vs. $5 for a hacked one then my decision may not be as easy.

What you say may be a practical consideration for media companies when they think about pricing, but it’s not a very ethical argument for consumers to advance. If you think a Lexus GS is priced too high, that doesn’t make it right to buy a stolen one for less.

Matt Dotseth, San Diego, CA:  Listen, as a technology professional, I have to disagree with the majority of your article. It is IMPOSSIBLE to stop digital piracy. As long as music comes out of your speakers, and a video signal is displayed on your screen, there is ALWAYS a way to make a copy of anything. The industry needs to shift their focus from "Protect the intellectual property" to "If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em" and find a way to peacefully co-exist with today's technology. The fact of the matter is there is nothing that can stop digital piracy, short of shutting down all computer networks. That is the plain, awful truth, and it’s high time that reporters like yourself are privy to the facts, not the RIAA and MPAA rundown. They simply have got no clue.

Oh, I think the RIAA and MPAA have plenty of clues, and I think they would agree that stopping all piracy is impossible. In the end they simply want to make piracy far more difficult and painful than legal purchases — as the following note reflects.

TG, Moore, SC:  I would like to comment on your rhetorical question "How does any business model compete against free?” As anybody who ever tried to download movies from the Web can tell you, this is an enterprise that usually takes many hours, even some days. There is no assurance that what you get in the end is what you were looking for (you might get another movie or just a block of a file, or something nastier like a virus). But let's suppose you are lucky. First, as far as quality is concerned (not to consider packaging) we are way off from DVD standards. Your download (e.g. a DivX file) usually requires special arrangements to run on your TV set. I'll skip the rest except to say that you need more than average technical know-how, plenty of free time and even so you have no guarantee of success.

Several writers took issue with my assertion that with file sharing, a whole generation has been taught that music should be free:

D, Charles Shiderly Coppell, TX: I think you're wrong about the "digital generation." These people do not think media is free, they simply don't have the money to make any purchases. In this case, any pirated media is no loss at all, as there was no sale to be made in the first place. In my experience, once the consumers of pirated materials actually have the means to afford to purchase, they do so.

Of course, just because you don’t have the money doesn’t justify theft.  But perhaps there is a turn toward legal sources:

Devin Leonard, Albuquerque, NM: I am 24, and I admit that for a while I used free Napster and Morpheus. This was mainly due to the fact that I didn't think it was fair to pay 15 bucks for a CD with only 2 or 3 good songs on it. I didn't download hundreds of songs like the people who are getting sued, and I also tended to feel somewhat guilty when I did download songs free. Then iTunes came along and I stopped using free services like Morpheus, because it made me feel better, plus those free services put all kinds of adware and spyware on your computer.  If the studios and music companies come up with a fair solution that punishes pirates and protects the rights of valid users like me, I am all for it. But if they are going to say screw everyone, just so they can continue to have all their money (our money) then we will either boycott or defy them.

Evan, Las Vegas, NV: I use illegal file sharing and I feel that a major role in the reason why users are still illegally downloading is because it is so inconvenient to change our ways. We, as the so-called digital generation, have become accustomed to downloading for free but more importantly without a credit card. The use of credit cards is hard because it requires an adult to have one. If there was a way to download legally without a credit card I would no longer be a criminal.

Georgicus Henrique, Watertown, MA: I felt the article was very well balanced. However, I do take issue with the characterization that “the Digital Generation of Lasica's title ... have been taught that digital music is free." Not so fast — that same generation that spent many hours downloading from FTP sites, then Napster, then Kazaa, has also simultaneously spent billions on purchasing music over the past couple of years, including traditional CD sales and the latest generation of "legal" digital downloads, such as iTunes. The RIAA and the rest of us argue each year about whether revenue has declined or increased for the recording companies, but it certainly hasn't come close to disappearing. The truth is, this generation has learned not only that the world of music is bigger than top-40 radio and the handful of artists that record biz shoves down their throats, but is willing to shell out for music when the price is right (and even when it isn't right).

Some interesting opinions came in over the notion of the proposed “broadcast flag” that might limit users’ ability to record programming, and the notion that without copy controls, current free broadcasts might become pay services:

Michelle, Tooele, Utah: I'm addicted to media just as much as any other person. But if all of a sudden I had to pay for the new season of a show, I would be a lot less likely to watch it, and a lot more likely to do something productive. Maybe I'd play with my brothers and sisters more. Maybe I'd actually get outside and get a little bit of exercise. For the most part, I watch TV because it's there. Media companies could lose out big by moving to a subscription program. Someone like me wouldn't waste their money to watch those mediocre programs. They would simply find something else to do.

D. Evans, Portland, Oregon: What do you mean restricting TV access to those who pay is "bad for consumers"? We take everything for granted in the US. Why not pay subscriptions for all TV? In Japan, if you have a TV in your house, you pay. Period.  As a nation, we spend too much time in front of the thing anyway.

Readers were concerned about how copy protection could — or already is — changing the way they use media: 

Andrew Milner, Columbus, OH: Copyright protection has already gone too far! I have a nice collection of DVD's, but at least half of them don't work because my little sister scratches them up. I legally own a copy of each of the movies I have bought on DVD and I should be able to back up these DVD's so that when one gets scratched I can burn a new one.

Anonymous: My concern is a plan by some companies such as Disney to make purchased videos with an expiration date. If I legally buy a movie (and I am a collector of legal movies) then I should own it for eternity. Whatever happened to the customer is always right?

Mike, Louisville, KY: One issue that I have is that those who actually BUY products are punished for those who do not. I was outraged the other day when I opened up a new video game that I purchased and read a warning that said not to "Copy or LEND" this disk. I showed it to my wife and we both wondered at the audacity built into that one statement. I cannot LEND my disk to a friend. "Does this extend to one’s spouse?" we joked. Can playing a movie I purchased for myself, my wife, and my children now constitute illegal activity?  One of my personal pet peeves is the videos that now come on the front of purchased DVDs that explain how illegal copying of movies is a crime. I get to watch it every time I play my purchased copy of the movie. I’m sure the pirates cut that right out on their copies. I don’t know the cure, but aggravating those of us who are paying top dollar (or even bargain-bin pricing) for movies cannot be sound business.

And finally, a note from a fellow writer:

Mike Belzer, Brooksville, FL: I noticed you put in this phrase: “It's worth noting that "Darknet" is a book rather than a documentary film. Writers tend to be less concerned about digital piracy than other content creators.” However you failed to note that the library has been around for thousands of years, sharing writers’ work without any profit. And yet writers do not protest ... we view literacy as a right, and the libraries as the guardians of knowledge.

Libraries also loan CDs and DVDs, but only one copy at a time, and that’s the different between a library and file sharing. When libraries loan e-books, they loan only as many copies as they have licenses for. If libraries bought one copy of a book, then made a thousand copies to loan, you can bet writers would protest.

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