That classic old line from Star Wars popped into my head as I read this week’s story about how a new unofficial LimeWire client called LimeWire Pirate Edition has been released to the public. The firm behind the official client and P2P network took a battering in court recently from the record labels, and was ordered to withdraw the software and take steps to disable the network as well – basically, kill the whole platform. LimeWire was dead, but a fortnight later some enterprising individuals have brought it back to life. And this time it’s going to be a lot harder to kill – just like Obi Wan. Despite the fact that I think artists should get paid something for their works rather than us all ripping their work off for free, I can’t help but smile. This was always going to happen.
Can’t we all be friends?
As Techdirt points out, Limewire actually tried to work with the music industry. Just like Napster and others did before it. Many of the early platforms that tried to work with the music industry to go legitimate are dead. iTunes and Amazon are rare examples of successful operations, but of course they have big names behind them.
Now that we have established legal download services, why has a non-legal platform been resurrected so quickly? The simple and obvious answer is demand. iTunes is starting to look expensive – the record labels pushed through a new pricing scheme recently which was supposed to charge a little more for new songs, but less for older songs. In almost every case I’ve looked at, per song prices have gone up. Regardless of the recent increase, the service already felt too expensive. The average price of an album seems to be 7.99UKP. For what? The right to download some files using our own connection and store them at our cost as well. We now do half of the distribution function ourselves, yet we still end up paying pretty much what a physical CD costs to buy in a shop these days. Given the massively lower overheads of online sales, we’re being ripped off again, just like we were back in the late 90’s paying 14.99 UKP for a CD.
History repeats itself
Another demand generator for non-legal download services is films. Broadband speeds have made it possible to download movies over the Internet, even spectacular high definition versions. And instead of legal download services being there ready to take up that demand, we’re in the same situation as we were in with music in the Napster era. Legal options are few and far between, and inferior to the free options. Torrents have plenty of DRM-free high quality 1080p movies, yet legal movie download services such as iTunes only offers highly compressed 720p files with restrictions on what you can do with them.
In its heyday I was a Napster user, but I now buy music legally through iTunes. Not because of some moral obligation but because the quality is always good and it’s far less hassle than using P2P networks. With the iPhone I can download music anywhere which has increased the amount I spend.
Will we ever get to this point with movies? Or will the gatekeepers continue to try and battle non-legal services rather than compete with them? Well one little known fact is that in some parts of the world they do try to compete. R5 DVD releases are versions of new films that are released early and cheap to combat rampant piracy. The quality of the copy is not quite up to the same levels as the final DVD/BluRay releases we get in the rest of the world, but the fact remains that they exist to compete with pirate copies. Meanwhile the rest of the world has the same old options – wait forever for the DVD/BluRay release and get ripped off (especially BluRay) or get it earlier, for free.
Where we’re headed
People want high quality, low cost, DRM-free, easily available media online – it’s that simple. And they will pay for it as long as the price is fair. There is no alternative, even if corporations and certain lobbied-up governments think there is. It’s clear already that people will find ways to make it happen. We live in interesting times where a small group of people can hack together a content distribution platform that can be used by millions. The arrogance of large media corporations in thinking they are owed a living and can gouge prices forever is staggering, as is their refusal to compete with free. How much longer can the situation continue?