Beginning about 20 years ago, the internet placed almost the entirety of human creation in an unguarded window display and said, in effect, help yourself.
The public, presented with an amazing smorgasboard of content, plunged right in.
Ever since, the “content” industries have been running to catch up. They’ve invented rights management systems, experimented with pricing models, created new media windows and, when these haven’t worked, lobbied governments to sanction the free-for-all.
They’ve also pitched into the online infringers – people downloading but not paying for content – calling them pirates and their actions piracy, words freighted with centuries of social disapproval.
The pirates have returned fire, casting the content owners as cigar-chomping moguls, extorting the public.
It’s a very black-and-white dialogue, and not very helpful.
Taking a step back
So how should content creators relate to audiences in the digital age? Is it business as usual or has the relationship changed in fundamental ways?
ScreenFutures, a group of established and emerging screen producers (including the authors of this article), makes the case that digital platforms enable a new kind of conversation between creators and audiences, less freighted and more interactive.
In this new conversation, audiences are no longer “couch potatoes” but fans – interested, opinionated, and involved with creators in the act of constructing the social meaning of the work.
Through crowdfunding services such as Pozible audiences can help bring the work to fruition and even help distribute it through services such as Tugg (which allows people to “book” movies into their local cinema by popular demand).
For creators whose first contact with audiences used to be standing at the back of a cinema and watching the punters file out, this is heady stuff.
They find themselves engaging with audiences much earlier and more fully than was conceivable even 10 years ago. Communication is the key.
So how should they regard fans who don’t or won’t pay?
ScreenFutures research findings
Earlier this year the ScreenFutures group commissioned a study by independent media researcher SARA.
The study surveyed nearly 1700 people aged 16-75 years and found that about 33% watched movies and TV shows illegally downloaded from the internet.
The researchers then surveyed more than 900 “direct pirates”, people who acknowledged they had personally downloaded content illegally – probing their attitudes and reasons for downloading.
The results showed there were many different motivations. Among “direct pirates” the chief attraction was that “it’s free” (20%). Others said they didn’t want to wait for legal releases (18%), or the shows they wanted weren’t legally available in Australia (16%).
Still others said they pirated because it was quick and easy (16%), while 10% said legal shows were too expensive.
These findings correlate with research recently reported by the Department of Communications, which measured illegal downloading in Australia and compared it with the UK (and yes, Australians are bigger downloaders).
The standout finding
But the standout finding in the ScreenFutures study was that attitudes to illegal downloading among people who do it are very ambivalent.
Only one-in-five were unambiguously and defiantly in favour of piracy: the study dubbed these the Outraged Outlaws.
They were not worried about the legality or ethics of pirating, nor its effects on content creators. The only thing that might moderate their behaviour, they reported, was fines or other forms of punishment.
The next category was the Conscious Cowboys. These were people who acknowledged the questionable ethics and illegality of their behaviour but felt they were forced into it by the problems of access and pricing.
Their would modify their behaviour, they said, if the content they wanted were more readily available. They might also reconsider their behaviour in response to ads or educational campaigns.
Nearly a third (31%) of respondents fell into this category.
The third category was the Anxious Addicts, roughly a quarter (24%) of respondents. These people said they loved content and felt guilty about downloading it without paying.
They also worried about fines and acknowledged the arguments of anti-piracy campaigners – especially the damage to industry.
Finally, there were the Nervous Newcomers (19%). New to piracy, apprehensive, doing it mainly because other people were, they were very sensitive to the arguments and open to changing their behaviour.
In short, four out of five people who download illegally have doubts about it, feel nervous or guilty, or sense they may be doing the wrong thing.
There is a conflict between creators and audiences over access to works but it is not deep nor is it intractable.
Except for a noisy minority – less than 10% of the overall population – audiences know they should be paying for content and feel bad about it when they don’t.
The data shows that people who download without paying are often genuine fans who readily pay for content at other times.
These facts need to be reflected in the way that we think and talk about piracy. It may be a form of theft but it is also a backhanded form of customer feedback.
What audiences are telling creators through their actions is that content delivery is too slow, too expensive and too complicated.
The content industries need to work at fixing these problems. But equally they need to begin a conversation with audiences, explaining the problems and what they are doing about them.
They also need to understand the different audience segments and respond to them appropriately — not tar them all with the same black-and-white piracy brush.
Content creators in particular should take up this challenge. After all it’s their work, their livelihoods and their audiences.
The ScreenFutures research shows that people are listening.
ScreenFutures launched its report, Content You Love: reframing piracy for a sustainable creative industry, at the Australian Film Television & Radio School on August 13.