It is worse than a cliche to talk about “these uncertain times” or “these challenging times” right now. Everyone is aware of the ongoing events surrounding COVID-19 and the anxiety that surrounds them. There’s little point in emphasizing that.
However, the fact remains that the world is changing before our eyes and those changes will reach every facet of our lives. When all of this is over, things will not simply go back to normal. That normal we remember likely doesn’t exist. Though many of the changes will be subtle, we’re going to emerge from this in a different world.
That, in turn, will have some surprising impacts and that includes in the area of copyright, especially as it applies to how creators protect their work.
Some of these changes will be welcome, many of them will not. But no matter how you feel about what’s going on, there’s little doubt that it is happening and it’s better to be aware than to be caught off guard.
To that end, here are five ways that COVID-19 and the quarantine for it are changing copyright, creativity and how artists protect/monetize their work.
1: The Rise of Piracy
Though specific numbers vary, one thing has been very clear, piracy is on the rise with everyone in quarantine. According to a study by Muso, visits to film piracy sites were up 57% compared to the last week of February and that increase has been from all over the world with the United States showing a 42.5% increase and the UK showing a 41.4% increase.
With so many people worried about finances and with a lot of free time on their hands, it’s no surprise that many of them turn to piracy to fill the hours and provide a distraction. However, this represents a real challenge for creators.
Though piracy has always been a vexing problem for the entertainment industry, much of the focus in recent decades had been on presenting legitimate streaming alternatives and making those the default choices for consumers. This is putting those efforts at risk.
If customers break their habits and start turning to piracy during quarantine, they simply may not return to legitimate alternatives when it’s over. Once someone has set up a “fully loaded” streaming box, it’s going to take a lot to get them to go back to Netflix and Hulu. The same holds true for music, books and any other entertainment they seek.
2: The Rise of Legitimate Streaming
However, the news isn’t all bad. Netflix added 15.8 million new subscribers last quarter, doubling its expectations. Disney+ also saw a spike in subscribers due to the efforts to combat COVID-19.
Whether these are new subscribers that had resisted streaming until now, returning subscribers that had dropped off previously or just people finally getting their own Netflix account is unknown. The main thing is that, even though piracy is on the rise, so is legitimate streaming as well.
In fact, these figures may wind up being more important than piracy traffic figures. An increase in piracy traffic can be explained by already-existing pirates simply having more time and engaging in more piracy. An uptick in subscribers, at least theoretically, represents new people paying for legitimate access to content.
Still, it’s going to be important to watch these numbers as things open back up. If the piracy numbers remain high and streaming services start to lose the subscribers they picked up, it will be clear that piracy was what was most strengthened.
3: Entertainment as an Essential Service
Creators have been doing some amazing things to help people get through these past few weeks. Authors have been allowing free readings of their work, musicians have been performing free concerts, theaters staging free showings and the list goes on.
But for all of the cooperation and support creators have tried to give, they’ve not always gotten a lot of it back. When the Internet Archive announced the launch of the “National Emergency Library”, they were lauded for it even though the site was, functionally, just an ebook piracy site.
Though criticisms from authors and publishers alike eventually drew more nuanced coverage, it doesn’t change the fact that the Internet Archive, for at least a moment, was praised as a hero even as it was the authors and publishers that were being asked to make the sacrifice.
Between this and the first element, it’s clear that many view the rights of creators as something that’s expendable during a time of emergency. They’re something that can be unilaterally revoked without any repercussions. If this is true, then it raises serious questions about the next pandemic or the next emergency.
4: The Loss of Multiple Revenue Streams
Concerts, meet and greets, book signings, conventions, theatrical performances, movie screenings and fan events all have two things in common: They are piracy-resistant revenue streams and they are not available right now due to COVID-19.
One of the common responses to criticisms of piracy is that artists and creators just need to “adapt” and take on different business models. This ignores the fact that many of those revenue streams were already essential before internet-based piracy and there is only so much they can be expanded in the face of it. “Play more concerts” is an especially poor solution for lost revenue due to piracy when the bands were already playing all the gigs they could.
However, in the wake of the pandemic, many of those models are effectively gone and that will likely be the case for some time. Legitimate streaming, selling merchandise and selling physical copies via delivery are the only business models still viable for many creators.
Yet, outside of merchandise, they are all vulnerable to piracy and recent trends paint a very mixed picture on what the future of those models look like.
5: A Reminder of the Importance of Entertainment
All of that said, one thing that has slowly changed is that more people are getting a reminder of just how important creators are.
Entertainment, broadly, has a reputation as being non-essential and something that is frivolous. This often comes up in the justifications for piracy with people feeling that supporting creators isn’t important because entertainment isn’t important.
Quarantine is showing that myth for what it is. Entertainment may not be food or medicine, but it is a core element of our social structure and our well-being. Whether we are bonding over Tiger King memes, enjoying a board game with family, holding a virtual book club or sharing our favorite albums on Facebook, entertainment is what brought us together and helped us deal with all of the stress and anxiety we face.
Hopefully, people will remember that as things return to normal and work to support the arts and artists in a variety of ways. Artists and their work are playing a key role in helping us through this and, while that doesn’t make them heroes by any stretch, it does mean they deserve to have their work respected and treated as important.
For artists, it’s difficult to find optimism right now. Key business models aren’t available, piracy is up and there seems to be a willingness to just throw creators’ rights to the wind. If you look to the future and don’t see much hope, I certainly understand why.
However, the rise in piracy is, most likely, tied to the rise in the importance of entertainment. People need distractions, people crave those cultural touchstones and they need the connections that only the arts can bring.
This moment could serve as a renaissance of public support for artists and creators. It’s a reminder of why TV, movies, music, books and art are all important. It also could be a moment that some models are lost and bad habits return.
We likely won’t know which it is until we are looking at this through hindsight. However, what is clear is that the world we exit into after this is done won’t the same as the one we came into it with.
All we can do is notice that change is definitely on the horizon and do what we can to prepare for it.