The government should not prop up failing business models

One thing that really stuck out to me during the SOPA/PIPA debate, and is now resurfacing in my mind with CISPA, is the sheer nerve of the entertainment industry, to essentially ask the government to be volunteer copyright enforcers on the taxpayers’ dime.

Digital piracy is not an indicator of masses of criminals who delight in stealing copyrighted works. It’s an indicator that people want content, and they have no easy, legal way to get it.

The makers of television programs who do not offer any way for people to purchase the programs online or watch them stream with ads are essentially saying they don’t want people to watch their content. I get that what they think they’re saying is people should watch it on TV when it airs, or maybe on their DVR…but many people have moved away from these costly entertainment streams in favor of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes, and companies need to catch up. And even if a person does typically watch a show live on TV, what if she misses an episode? Most shows build on the happenings of previous episodes these days, so just skipping one would be jarring. You’ve got to give people a way to catch up to the story.

But instead of seeing the profit potential in online streaming and digital downloads, many big content creators are just opting out, or only providing a limited offering. They’re ignoring a whole new revenue stream and then wondering why profits aren’t quite as fantastic as they used to be.

The decision-makers are so blind to their own failing business model that they’re grasping at the piracy straw and holding it out to the government in desperate entreaty. “I don’t want to let people consume my content legally. Just arrest and prosecute a bunch of people for me so I can make up some profit!”

Please note that I am not arguing that piracy is in any way right or good. I am, however, arguing that it is an understandable behavior under these conditions. Humans who want things tend to get them, regardless of the risks involved. (Illegal drugs are a good example of this.) If companies want to curb piracy, they should change their approach.

Rather than treating all potential customers like criminals, companies should make it so easy and convenient to get their content that it would be absurd to pirate it.

We are already on a slippery slope of creative control. Copyrights have been extended to a ridiculous degree, and fewer and fewer modern works are entering public domain. The original notion of copyright, to protect a person’s creation during his or her life, has become lost in corporate greed. And what people seem to be missing is that draconian copyright laws are nothing more than government handouts in the form of law enforcement muscle and court time.

Government is there to ensure opportunity for all, not to blindly throw money at problems. If the government gets involved in a company’s profits at all, it should be only in a time of desperate need. Even then, I disapprove of just giving them money or law enforcement assistance. They should come in with a business plan.

Entertainment companies should not expect huge profits in a bad economy. They should create strategies for their own survival. If and only if they still need help, and if and only if their loss would significantly impact society, government could help. But this should not be entered into lightly. Congress should not make the decision based on numbers the media company brings in themselves, for example. There should always be independent confirmation.

And when these companies ask for help, it should be publicly…not through the legislators whose campaigns they’ve funded.

Ultimately, it should not be the government’s job to funnel money into big companies. Bailouts that get paid back are one thing, but copyright enforcement would occur at the cost of the government–lost time and money. That’s not sustainable, and ultimately it’s not going to fix the entertainment industry’s lack of vision.