Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Digital “Piracy” of Broadcast Content

I’ve been pondering this since I read an article about recent P2P network traffic. It turns out that the vast majority of actual traffic is no longer music, but video. This has broadcast content providers concerned, since they don’t seem to want their product spread out of their control.

It seems to me they’re looking at this the wrong way. There are two fundamental truths that these producers need to consider:

  1. All information is subject to evolutionary pressure. That pressure pushes information into the hands of as broad an audience as possible. No “owner” can stop that.
  2. People are inherently lazy.
The first means that content providers, by providing material people want, are simply advancing the pressure on that content to get into the minds of a broader and broader audience. “Piracy,” as typically defined, is thus inevitable. The hope comes in the second. There is a small number of people dedicated to packaging “pirated” material for consumption by those that wish to consume it digitally. Most people so dedicated, are also motivated enough to trim out production credits and advertisement.

But, if producers themselves produced the content in the desired (digital, easily consumed) format, directly to the consumer, with the same, or even more convenient delivery mechanism, without the overshadowing threat of prosecution/persecution, they would have virtually complete control over the actual content. Most people don’t care enough to remove ads, if they have the content they want. And once they have that content, the pressure to find a version with the ads removed is dramatically lower than the pressure to obtain the content originally. Low enough that most won’t even bother.

So, content providers, rather than struggling against, essentially, their own success, should go into (or contract out) the direct digital content business. Produce neat little packages of content, wrap it around ads, credits, or other information that people will pay to get into consumers’ hands, and deliver it to as many people as humanly possible.

To get down to a real-life example: I missed the broadcast of the first episode of “The 4400” on the USA network. So, I decided to download it with BitTorrent. The copy I retrieved is HDTV quality, and has had all ads and most of the credits removed. It is exactly what I desire to watch. However, if USA had provided a download of the same (or even normal broadcast) quality material, with the original ads and credits intact, free, I would have retrieved that one instead, viewed at least a number of the commercials, and been satisfied.

So, as it stands now, the advertisers, and ultimately the broadcaster, lose out because they will not adapt to a new medium for information distribution.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004


From time to time, I get into the same argument: Retail merchants are not allowed to require identification for a consumer to use a Visa or Mastercard. With all of the recent security-consciousness about identity theft, a lot of merchants have started demanding ID, because it makes people feel like they are being protected.

But they can’t do that.

It’s buried pretty deep, and not commonly known, but Visa and Mastercard policy both prohibit merchants from requiring identification to complete a transaction using their credit cards.

From the Visa FAQ:

Q. Are merchants allowed to ask for identification when using Visa products?
A. While a merchant may ask for identification if fraud is suspected, it is contrary to Visa policy to require the consumer to show identification as a condition of the sale. If a merchant asks for identification and the consumer is unable or unwilling to produce it, the merchant is still obliged to accept the consumer’s Visa card. Consumers who experience refusal of service based on identification may either call their card issuer to report the problem or call 1-800-VISA-911.

From the Mastercard merchant complain form, the list of reportable infractions:

  • In order to make a MasterCard purchase, the merchant/retailer required a minimum or maximum amount.
  • The merchant/retailer is adding a charge for using your MasterCard card.
  • The merchant/retailer required identification.
  • A merchant/retailer displaying the MasterCard decal in their window refused to accept my MasterCard card.

American Express is trickier. My understanding is (and I don’t have documentation to back this up, yet) that, while a merchant may require ID to process a transaction, they may not be more restrictive for Amex than they are for any other credit card they accept. Meaning, if they take Visa/MasterCard, they are obliged to accept American Express without ID as well.