Mistake Shows Need for Clear Communication in Piracy Discussions

BusinessWeek recently took a look at the new generation of Web content recognition systems, and right up front the article illustrates one of the essential problems with current piracy discussions: conclusions and misinterpretations fueled by emotion and ambiguity.

In this case, the incorrect conclusion was mine. It began with this passage:

For a media executive, the appeal of a content recognition system is clear. With a glance, a publisher or studio head can plainly see where, when, and how their content is being viewed. In a demonstration for BusinessWeek earlier this year, Attributor executives showed how many times scenes from “The Sopranos” had appeared on 20 leading video sites since they first aired on TV. In all, 1,500 scenes from 52 episodes had been viewed 32 million times. For Time Warner’s (TWX) HBO, those viewings might have brought in more than $1 million, said Attributor Chief Executive Officer Jim Brock. [Emphasis added.]

The $1 million figure pushed my buttons. Brock was using piracy fears and unsubstantiated figures to further an agenda … or so I thought. The author of the article, Peter Burrows, clarified the $1 million figure in a reply to an email I sent: It turns out that Brock was estimating revenue from advertising that did, or could have, run next to the “Sopranos” clips. I’m glad I asked, because there’s a big difference between an overlooked opportunity and outright theft.

If we’re talking about missed revenue from advertising rather than more inflammatory lost revenue from piracy, then we can further the discussion to advertising-based opportunities and solutions. But if a big figure is thrown out and there’s no sense of where it comes from or how it applies, the discussion invariably turns emotional — i.e. “we’re losing money to pirates!”, or in my case “more piracy doublespeak!” An exec informed of a $1 million missed opportunity tends to react differently than someone suffering from a $1 million theft (measured analysis vs. scorched-earth cease and desist campaigns).

This example, including the clarification, showcases the importance of clear communication when dealing with an inherently murky topic like piracy. As we’ve noted previously, piracy is not clear cut. It’s natural to condemn the moral and financial violations of content pirates, but outright dismissal could obscure publicity or branding opportunities that yield better long-term results than Draconian countermeasures. Alternative perspectives should at least be considered before lawsuits are launched … and you need reliable information to reach useful — and correct — conclusions.

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