Everyone wins!

I’ve often argued that when there’s the means to easily pirate copyrighted material, every wins: the copyright holders who object so noisily are among those who benefit because its very common that people who’ve downloaded music that they like by a new artist will subsequently pay that that artist’s other work.

What I hadn’t realised is just how huge the commerical boost of having all your stuff freely available can be.

A while back, the Monty Python team made a shedload of their sketches freely available in high quality on their own YouTube channel, hoping that as a result people would buy more DVDs.  According to this widely linked story, the experiment has been not just successful, but wildly, crazily so.  They’re reporting that sales of Monty Python DVDs at Amazon have increased by 23,000% — that’s 231-fold — since they made all that material available on Youtube.

I imagine they’d hoped that sales would double, and would have been absolutely delighted if they’d increased by a factor of ten.  A factor of 231 is just … unprecedented.

I found it hard to believe this, but when I emailed my buddy Matt Wedel, he responded:

I can believe it. Over here, there are roughly two generations that have grown up without regular access to Python, and kids these days aren’t going to shell out for a boxed set of foreign comedy–unless they’ve see just how funny it is.

I guess events have proven him right.

It disturbs me to think that all the effort the RIAA and similar groups are putting into preventing piracy are actively hurting their bottom line.  Or, no, on the other hand, maybe it makes me happy.  These people have never shown the slightest respect for their customers or indeed their artists, so maybe I don’t have to feel bad that their stupidity is hurting them.  It won’t be too long before they’re just out of the picture anyway.


31 responses to “Everyone wins!

  1. Spaceman Spiff

    Do you mind if I post this to the TechDirt.com web site? This is exactly what they are trying to get people to understand, that a wider viewer/listener audience = better sales $$. Here is a link to their article about and a video of Neil Gaiman how he experienced exactly the same effect – that making his work available free online increased his sales volume by 300%!


  2. Spaceman Spiff, please feel free. Great to know that Neil Gaiman has had the same experience. (Someone should build a website that is a clearing-house for such anecdotes.)

  3. Spaceman Spiff

    That’s basically what TechDirt.com does, besides reporting on all the bogus MPAA/RIAA suits, etc.

  4. Spaceman Spiff

    Anyway, thanks for the permission.

  5. Spaceman Spiff

    Ok. I submitted an article linking to this on the TechDirt.com website. It should be available as soon as they have moderated it.

  6. What’s also really interesting is how well many “pay what you think it’s worth” marketing efforts have gone. Radiohead and Trent Reznor are the two most obvious examples but there have also been a couple in the software world. Skeptics of the practice assume that the venture will be a net loss and are proven wrong.

    an interesting corollary comes from a recent email exchange I had with the author of an android app I couldn’t live without: AlarmDroid. Some points to come out of this conversation were:
    1) the app, which started as something the dev wanted and was just so well done, now has an install base of over 175000. It was initially completely free but it was easy to make a paypal donation, which I did simply because I felt the software was worth it and the dev was highly responsive wrt requests and bugfixes
    2) with that large install base, some interesting info arises: even though the dev made a paid version available, people donate more than the paid version’s price. However, a large number of unpaying users remained – and interestingly enough, the dev reports that it was the unpaying users who were the most demanding and abusive. Paying users generally had constructive remarks and assisted in bugfixing. This seems to be indicative of the generation Y mindset – it’s all about me
    3) he was making < $5 a day from the app but spending 2-3 hours a day fielding mails, fixing bugs (or just trying to track them down: one reported issue was actually an android bug, but it plagued him for some time). When he introduced ads into the free version, the same parasitic users were the first to flame and complain. Paid users remained supportive.

    I guess this goes to show that there are other sides to the free argument. Would he have made more money if there hadn't been a free version? I doubt it. But it's interesting to see that there are still people for whom free isn't enough. Society will always harbor leeches but I think producers are starting to realize that the "good" consumers out there appreciate unfettered access to the content that will be willing to pay for once they're convinced of the quality. Of course, this model can only really apply to products which can be digitally distributed: the cost of giving away full free samples is nil and the marketing payback has obvious benefits.

  7. Absolutely. When I was on a minimum-wage job, desperate for free entertainment, I downloaded a *lot* of the Big Finish Doctor Who audios without paying. Now I’m in a decent job, I’ve spent about £1000 on Big Finish stuff in the last three years – none of which I’d have bought had I not already tried them for free.
    Similarly, when I was a student I used Napster to try a couple of tracks off the Nuggets box set before buying it – a £60 box set is a *lot* for a student. Since then I’ve bought both that box and its sequel, and approximately thirty or so albums by bands on the box set, and seen a bunch of them live. Those five or six MP3 downloads have probably brought in another £500-£1000 for the bands and labels involved over the course of the last decade – and that’s just *my* purchases from bands that are on the box. More widely (me buying more music *like* that, me encouraging my friends to go and see Love or the Electric Prunes and so on) the benefits to them have been incalculable.

  8. Spaceman Spiff

    Bingo! I love Doctor Who, and downloaded a bunch of the new series (started in 2005). So, some time later (2009), my wife bought me the entire 4 seasons (at that time) of the new series in boxed sets for my birthday! That’s a significant sale they wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t already “pirated” them… :-)

  9. Spaceman Spiff

    Another anecdote.

    I am a Big Brother, and my Little (now a 20-year old and not so little any more) in New Hampshire is a BIG Stargate fan. I downloaded a bunch of episodes, transcoded them onto DVDs for him, and gave them to him for his birthday some time ago. Yeah – that was real “piracy”… :rolleyes: So, when Amazon had a sale on the full 10 season boxed set, I purchased it for him for xmas. There is another (even at sale prices) significant sale that would NEVER have happened if I hadn’t first sampled the goods.

  10. Spaceman Spiff

    BTW, that 10 seasons of Star Gate came to over 50 DVD’s!

  11. However there is another side to the medal, I don’t think games enjoy the same “lucky” fate as music and series. Simply put people very rarely play a game over and over and rarely buy a game they once finished pirated.

    On the other hand MPAA and RIAA can die in a shallow grave. The real irony is that the founders of MPAA at least were “pirates”. Here is excerpt from Free Society by Lawrence Lessig [pg 53-54]:
    “The film industry of Hollywood was built by fleeing pirates.[1] Creators
    and directors migrated from the East Coast to California in the early
    twentieth century in part to escape controls that patents granted the
    inventor of filmmaking, Thomas Edison. These controls were exer-
    cised through a monopoly “trust,” the Motion Pictures Patents Com-
    pany, and were based on Thomas Edison’s creative property—patents.
    Edison formed the MPPC to exercise the rights this creative property
    gave him, and the MPPC was serious about the control it demanded.

  12. I think the point is well proven with physical goods (i.e. books & DVDs in particular) but the interesting question is whether it will work for pure digital content – and especially if that content is ‘in the cloud’ (and all we’re paying for is an entry on a system somewhere that says we ‘own’ the rights to access it).

    And it has to be said that DVD box sets are great value (maybe 50 hours of content for £15 in some cases).

  13. Games – Doom is the poster boy for giving it away free and having a hit. And while sequels often suck, extra levels / content can help.

    The iOS App Store is also a good demonstration that if cheap enough, disposable ‘pop’ software can work – although it’s also arguably an argument for DRM, given that it prevents casual piracy of the type most people engage in. And much of the same criticism applies as with pop music (i.e. it doesn’t encourage people to aim for longevity).

  14. Daniel, I think you may be right about pirated games not yielding the same kind of positive outcome for the copyright holder as pirated music, TV shows and movies. The reason I only say “may”, though, is that even thought many computer games don’t have a lot of replay value, plenty have sequels, and there is no better advert for a sequel than an original. In the same way, although some people will buy legitimate copies of CDs that they’ve already pirated, I think it’s much more common that they will buy other CDs by the same artist.

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  16. “will subsequently pay that that artist’s other work.”

    Of course once they pirate season 1, they are not going to pirate season 2 are they. So much more logical to pay for something you can get for free.

  17. Last Hussar waxed sarcastic:

    “will subsequently pay that that artist’s other work.”

    Of course once they pirate season 1, they are not going to pirate season 2 are they. So much more logical to pay for something you can get for free.

    I can see why you’re skeptical, but I can tell you from my own experience that I pirated Buffy Season 1, never having seen an episode, and consequently bought the DVD box sets for all of Seasons 2-7. This kind of thing doesn’t seem to be at all uncommon.

  18. Ok, so we’ll all just consume copywrited and re-broadcasted / marketed material from the last century forever then, with no chance or opportunity for newer artists to build a name for themselves in the current system.

  19. Brendan, I can only assume you’re being deliberately obtuse here. The point of the article I linked to is that there is reason to think that the experience of the Pythons and of Neil Gaiman (and for that matter the people who sold me my Buffy DVDs) will generalise — that allowing free access to copyrighted material (or, equivalently, not being able to prevent it) will enhance sales rather than eating into them. If that’s so, then it applies just as obviously to people making new copyrighted works now as to those who made them ten or twenty years ago.

  20. Spaceman Spiff

    @ Brendan

    Sorry dude, but this is just so wrong! Newer artists are flocking to the internet and youtube in droves, just to get their music / art out there and establish a connection with their fans. Once you have that connection, they will support you! The labels play artists squat unless they are mongo big acts, and people ARE willing to pay for stuff directly from their favorite artists since they know that 1) they are supporting the arts and artists, 2) that the artist will actually be getting the bulk of the $$ you spend on them.

    My wife is a serious amateur old-time musician and her band is a good semi-professional group – they get paid a fair wage to play dances, weddings, and other events. We also give house concerts and have had some really important as well as lesser known artists. They get the door fee, dinner, and whatever they get from selling their CD’s and other material to the attendees. Even major artists, like bluegrass mandolin great Andy Statman, who play here prefer to play for 30-40 fans in our basement venue to a lot of larger audiences – the connection is just so much better! And they know that for each person who came to the concert, another 10 will find out about how great they are! So, this is a domain that we are somewhat familiar with.

  21. Spaceman Spiff

    P.S. FWIW, we have had Statman play at our house twice in the past 3 years, and this is an artist that can fill Carnegie Hall!

  22. Spaceman Spiff

    One final comment from me on this subject…

    It is obvious that this subject of “intellectual property” rights is a hot topic these days, and it gets the dander up on a lot of people, from both sides of the bench, so to speak. My feeling is that while IP (copyrights, patents, et al) are useful in some regard, the concepts of fair use and the benefits to society to be able to share information, music, art, etc are manifest and must be protected at all costs. I buy art, literature, and music for two reasons. One is that I like it, and two is that I want to support the artist so they can make more great stuff that enriches all our lives. However, if I have purchased (or obtained in some fashion) an eBook or album of an author or musician/band that I like and I think that someone I know should be exposed to their art, then when I make a copy of the eBook or album (or tracks from the album) to “lend” them so they can read/listen in their own time and appreciate what that artist has to offer, then I think it is perfectly “fair use” to do so. In the long run, the artist benefits because it is likely that the recipient of our (the artist and my) largess will invest in more work from that artist if they like it sufficiently. If not, then what has been lost? No artist that I know was ever into their art for the money. Art, be it graphical, musical, literary, or performance, is a matter of love and passion, otherwise it cannot be called art!

  23. billyboneshaker

    Radiohead have done something similar offering their music as free download initially allowing people to pay whatever they want and averaging around $8 for the album which later went on itunes for $9.99. Pretty good tactic to boost your popularity I guess…

  24. Hey folks, I got the submission of this story for Techdirt. Just wanted to say you’re a couple years late on the story. :) We wrote about this in January of 2009 when it actually came out:


    Not sure why it’s suddenly popped up in the news again, but it’s an old story.

  25. Same here.
    I love the Lexx series, downloaded them a bunch of times – but still want the complete set! So… guess my next DVD purchase!

  26. Spaceman Spiff

    Re. Mike’s comment:

    Well, what goes around, comes around… again, and again, and again… :-)
    In any case, it’s still a great, and timely, story even if it is a couple of years old! Thanks for the link.

  27. As far as pirating games goes, as Mike says up in comment 5078, even pirated games can work in favour of sales. I bought a modded original Xbox from a mate a couple of years ago, and it had Halo and Halo 2 on it. As a result of this I bought Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST as soon as I got an Xbox 360. Not only that, but when my brother had a go of my copy of Halo he want and bought Halo, Halo 2 (admittedly both second-hand), Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach (which I’ll buy once it drops in price a bit). It’s likely that none of those sales would have happened without the first two Halo games sitting on the hard drive of my second-hand, modded Xbox.

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