A few days ago I found myself overcome with the desire to watch Courage the Cowardly Dog. Not just any episode, but specifically an episode from the fourth season entitled “Housecalls.” I figured I’d go to Amazon and order the DVD set, solving my current problem and preventing a repeat of the situation from ever coming up again. Much to my horror I discovered that seasons three and four never saw a DVD release. Nor was it available on Amazon’s streaming service. The only place I could find this episode was on iTunes, but iTunes videos are plagued with digital rights management software that prevents them from being played on my phone, my TV, or anywhere other than through iTunes.
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Left with few options, I did what many students do every time they (or their girlfriend) missed an episode of Grey’s Anatomy- I pirated it. I didn’t do it because I wasn’t willing to pay for it- trust me, Courage the Cowardly Dog is worth any price of admission. I downloaded it because it was faster, more convenient, of a higher quality than iTunes, and playable on any device I owned.
The internet has been aflame over the last month due to online censorship bills such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the Protect IP Act (PIPA), and most recently the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, commonly referred to as ACTA. While most of the bills have been shelved because of public reaction or are in various stages of the legislative process, they all point towards a disturbing mindset that the entertainment industry seems to have: that they don’t need to evolve and can simply sue their way out of their failing business model.
The fact of the matter is piracy, for many people, is more about convenience than price. The entertainment industry’s cries of “we can’t compete with free” simply don’t hold water when you look at how successful companies are when they’ve found a way to compete with free.
“We think there is a fundamental misconception about piracy,” Valve Corporation CEO Gabe Newell said, in an interview with The Cambridge Student Online. “Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem. For example, if a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24/7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country three months after the U.S. release and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable. Most DRM solutions diminish the value of the product by either directly restricting a customer’s use or by creating uncertainty.”
Valve Corporation is probably best known for developing popular games like Portal, Left 4 Dead and Half-Life, as well as the hugely successful digital distribution platform for computer games called Steam. Steam allows players to download nearly any PC game instantly while providing incentives like allowing the game to be installed on multiple computers, auto-updates, cloud saves, regular sales that discount games by a huge amount and a robust anti-cheating system. Despite being wrapped in a restrictive form of DRM (steam more or less requires a constant high-speed internet connection to function reliably), it’s actually easier to buy a game on Steam than it is to steal it. Because Valve puts the consumer experience first, Steam has seen monumental success.
The entertainment industry as a whole should adopt this philosophy instead of being so stubborn. Suing college students and soccer moms isn’t going to solve the problem of piracy, nor will lobbying for vague bills that threaten the sanctity of freedom of speech on the Internet. The industry needs to evolve.
Ben Ebell can be contacted at