Funding Content Theft through Search?

The recent demise of a couple of attempts to pass more stringent copyright protection acts may well have sent the content pirates back to their treasure troves toasting a congress unable to move legislation forward. However, the whole area of content theft remains a hot topic that overlaps search in a couple of clear ways.

Among proposed legislation is a law to stop search engines from displaying stolen content. Not a bad idea on its face as most content (stolen or otherwise) is found through search. In fact, it was a horrible idea as it put an unreasonable, indeed, untenable burden on the search engines. With appropriate lobbying from the industry it died rapidly.

However, the issue remains. Institutionalized content theft is alive and well. It has completely remodeled the music business to the point where almost the only way that bands can make money is by performing live. In many cases, bands regard their music as essentially free promos for their live dates. TV and cinema are also being impacted, however, the impact is less obvious, though no less insidious.

Part of the problem (and I have a couple of suggested solutions btw) is that the content creation industry is inherently unsympathetic. Some of us are old enough to remember vinyl, which we bought and then bought again on tape, then on CD and maybe DVD and maybe iTunes. There are songs in my collection that I have probably paid for five times. Ditto for movies and TV. Anyone who pays $100 a month for cable with a few premium channels and $100 a viewing to take the kids to the movies might be forgiven for thinking that the gouging fat cats of media have it coming. Add to that the fact that there is almost nothing as unappealing as watching a very well paid person doing a job any of us would give their eye teeth to do moaning about copyright infringement. No wonder the industry struggles for popular support. The technology makes it simple, and putting the genie back in the bottle seems a hopeless task.

One way to make content theft much less attractive is to reduce the incentive. Most first run DVDs sell for about $20, and a month later they are $5. Did they become much cheaper to make? No, the pressure of piracy lowered the market price to the point where a lot of people would rather just pay $5 and have the convenience of easy delivery and a good night’s sleep.

The same goes for content through iTunes and Amazon. When the content creators got with the program and started releasing content at a price point that the average person felt was reasonable (about $1 per track or TV show) the floodgates opened and billions flowed. Most people don’t want to steal, but the same people are tired of being ripped off over the years and thus may be able to justify the content theft internally by the “they-had-it-coming” argument. If the content creators keep releasing content at a value point that makes sense to their audience (as opposed to their ambition) it is likely they will continue to flourish.

Making the search engines responsible for policing a broken paradigm makes no sense, but there is a way, and an important way, that the search engines could help. The irony of content piracy is that material that may cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce can be copied and distributed for pennies. However, generating even those pennies can be problematic for the pirates. It’s understandably tough to get users to pony up a credit card for what they know to be an inherently shady undertaking (if they stole from them why wouldn’t they steal from you?), but the millions of page impressions surrounding the process of content theft are largely monetized by ads from the major search engines.

I’m a search guy. I know how hard it is to get an ad feed from one of the big guys and how tough those guys are on what you can and can’t do with their ads. They lay down strict guidelines about adult content, violence, hate speech, etc … and anyone who violates those rules gets their feed yanked and there goes the revenue.

Similarly, if you are syndicating an ad feed you had better be sure that your downstream follows the same rules or you will get penalized. I was in the desktop download marketing industry a few years back. That industry made millions for a huge number of businesses. When the heat of public opinion got too hot the search giants pulled their support and the industry shut down literally over night. I have no solid data, but I have to believe in the broad scheme of things the revenue the big search guys make from allowing their ads to be shown in the download industry is pretty minimal. The addition of one paragraph to the T&Cs of two search engines’ ad products would hole the pirate’s galleons below the water. It probably wouldn’t stop everyone, but if the source of immediate revenue is removed from the smaller guys and the hobby thieves I have to believe the impact would be dramatic. The content world would be better off lobbying Mountain View instead of congress, a properly crafted social media campaign would work wonders, and we could use Google+ to make it happen.

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