8 Rules For Tackling Piracy and Building a Business

Pretty much everyone who sells content for all or part of their living agrees that piracy is a problem. Even the most open-minded on piracy issues agree that they’d rather have everyone who obtains a copy pay for it, even if it isn’t practical.

However, what has been extremely diverse is the response to it. There have been almost as many ways of approaching piracy as there are companies and organizations seeking to address it.

The most famous response was the RIAA’s initial lawsuit campaign, at first against companies enabling file swapping and then against individuals. Though the RIAA has ceased its campaign against individuals, that approach has been taken up, in larger numbers, by the U.S. Copyright Group and other law firms acting on behalf of smaller copyright holders, often times film makers and pornography companies.

Other companies have attempted to encourage licensing, the AP famously went down this road with its partner iCopyright. However, that move was mired in controversy almost from day one, largely due to heavy-handed licensing practices, and has now resulted in iCopyright suing the AP for breach of contract..

However, we’re also seeing a slew of creative anti-piracy strategies. This includes Avast’s recent announcement it had tracked some 750,000 illegal installations using a single license. Rather than shutting down the key, they watched it grow and only now are pushing users of it to either pay for a license or switch to their free version.

This is somewhat similar to what I was doing in the early days of CopyByte, the plagiarism and copyright consulting firm I now head, where I would track content for my client and recruit those misusing it to obtain a license. Though it was a risky process, it brought in a slew of customers and helped make the company money without having to sue or obtain settlements.

All of this says nothing about the various copyright holders who are aware of piracy or content misuse and are doing nothing about it, simply letting it take place and either ignoring it or experimenting with pricing strategies, such as the Humble Indie Bundle, to lure pirates back into the paying fold.

So which of these systems are the best? It’s hard to say as each have their benefits and drawbacks. However, there are a few hard rules that I have gleaned over the years and they are rules I want to share today.

Rule 1: There Are No Magic Bullets

Anyone who approaches you and tells you that they can instantly cure-all of your piracy/copyright infringement ills is either lying or foolish. Either way, they are trying to sell you something that won’t live up to its promises

If fixing the copyright situation online were as simple as doing one small thing, everyone would have done it a decade ago and the matter would be over.

Dealing with these matters requires creative thinking, hard work and a willingness to accept realities, no matter what approach you try. No one thing is ever going to be a cure-all and even with a robust strategy there will be limitations.

Rule 2: Every Creator is in a Different Position

What does the RIAA have in common with a new blogger? Not a lot.

Not only is this a big part of why I’m very skeptical when I see larger copyright groups push for legislation saying it supports “all creators”, but it is why there is no “one size fits all” approach to dealing with copyright infringement.

There are even differences between very similar artist types. For example, some new musicians are able and willing to do more touring and live performances where others are not. The opportunities one has great affects their situation when dealing with infringement and that, in turn, forces changes in strategy.

Rule 3: Every Infringement is Different

The same as every creator is different, so is every infringer and every infringement. A multinational corporation that pirates expensive software requires a different approach than a blogger republishing a few paragraphs from an article.

The fact the law treats all infringements equally does not mean that copyright holders and enforcers can or should do the same. Not only is it impractical, but very risky in every regard.

It’s important to find a way to both keep an even enough hand so that no one is treated unfairly, but also give yourself enough flexibility so that you aren’t forced to overreact in the name of “fairness”.

Rule 4: There is More Than One Courtroom

It’s important to remember that, even if your actions are allowed under the law, that the public is going to hold a completely separate trial of your behavior and, unlike the law itself, doesn’t have a set source of rules that it turns to in a dispute.

This can work against rightsholders, as with the RIAA lawsuits, or in favor of them, as with the Cooks’ Source Case.

The public is going to decide who the bad guy is and having an outcry against you can be far more harmful to your business than any infringement.

Winning the battle in the court but losing the battle here can be a true Pyrrhic victory and one that you may never recover from.

Rule 5: Focus on what You Can Do Without Doing Anything

When trying decide on what approach to take, it’s important, especially for smaller creators, to focus on the things they can do to deal with piracy that don’t involve any actual action or dealing with infringers.

This can range from simply licensing content in a different manner, perhaps under a Creative Commons License, or it can be as simple as putting a proper copyright notice on your work. Pricing strategies can also fall under this category, offering deals and sales to lure pirates away, as can offering support contracts or features only available to legitimate copies of the work.

These “zero effort” methods of reducing piracy are not only effective, but are also the most cost-efficient and practical tools available.

Rule 6: Focus on the Important Cases

Given the risks, costs and effort required to deal with infringements, it is important to prioritize cases. Start with repeat infringers or sites that are ranking well in Google for your name and your content.

Target the infringements that are having a noticeable impact on your business and deal with them first. You’ll find that these usually carry the least risk, are often the easiest to handle and generate the fewest problems. The friction in resolving problems goes up drastically the further down the chain you go and the rewards drop considerably.

Rule 7: There Will Always Be Infringement

No matter how good your strategy is, there will always be infringement as it is impossible to stop all of it. The question is how much infringement there will be and what the costs will be to stop the ongoing cases.

There comes a point where the cost and effort of battling infringement is far greater than the potential rewards. Accepting this reality is the key to knowing when to quit and finding a level of infringement that is acceptable.

Rule 8: Copyright is Not the Business Model

Finally, copyright is not the business model, instead it supports and enables the business model, whatever it may be.

Trying to turn copyright infringement directly into a profit center, either through lawsuits or threats of lawsuits, may be a legal tactic, but it won’t win friends. Courts and defendants alike are growing weary of such tactics and the public support is squarely against it.

Copyright is meant to enable business models and there are many business models that don’t depend on copyright at all. Enforcing copyright beyond what is necessary for your business in a bid to open up another source of income is a tactic that is bound to backfire.

Bottom Line

When it comes to copyright enforcement, there aren’t many rules that can be applied broadly. After all, as mentioned above, every copyright holder and every infringement are different and very little holds true across the board.

To make matters worse, the rules are changing constantly and what worked one year may not work the next. Legally, technologically and socially, very little is stable or decided.

The best thing anyone can do is take an honest look at their situation and decide on a strategy that best serves their needs. It’s a tricky matter, but doing so is better than relying blindly on what others have done before you, no matter how successfully, and it opens the door to trying new things and launching new experiments.

And that’s where the real promise lies, where one stops chasing the changes taking place and starts creating them. If you can do that with your work and your business as an example, you can blaze a trail that others can’t help but follow you down.