Media Companies' Public Image Problem

Posted by Martin Vilcans on 29 January 2008

The court of the European Union decided today that copyright holders may be allowed to force internet service providers to disclose the identity of suspected pirates. The two "serious" newspapers in Sweden (DN and SvD) report this as a neutral decision, as it is up to each member state whether it wants to allow the disclosure of the identities or not. There is still no EU-wide requirement for it. One of the "not as serious" newspapers (Aftonbladet) reports this as a big step towards allowing media corporations to get personal information from the ISPs. As such information normally is disclosed only following a court order, many people think that giving away the information indiscriminately is an integrity problem. Skewed news reporting aside, this is a valid concern.

On the other hand, if you look at it from the point of view of the copyright holders, it is easy to understand that they want to take desperate measures. If you lose (what you perceive as) a large part of your income to illegal activities, you want to be able to do something about it. There is no point in having laws if there is no way to enforce them. Unfortunately not many people care. I think this is because of the media companies' public image problem.

The media companies spent a good part of the last century promoting an image of themselves as having lots of money. For example, picture a record label executive. You'll probably think of a guy in a suit in a leather armchair behind a huge desk in a luxury office with framed gold discs on the wall. Who cares if he loses some money? No-one even knows who he is. And the people that we do know in the entertainment business - or think we know because of media's coverage of every aspect of their lives - the stars, the celebrities - make lots of money. It might not feel all good to rob someone you know by name (I mean, me and Brad Pitt are like this), but still - it doesn't hurt anyone who can't afford it. (And yeah, let's ignore the fact that most record label executives are struggling with their small companies and that most actors and musicians work for peanuts.)

Back in the 20th century, the media companies' glamorous image may have served them well. Giving someone who works for you the impression that he or she one day may become a star and make lots of money is a good way to get cheap labour. Now this image hurts them more than it serves them.

So, what can the media companies do to repair this image? Protecting their business the way they have been doing the last few years has only strengthened the impression that they are a greedy bunch. If a future law allows them to get personal information from the ISPs, they need to be very careful and selective about when they chose to use it. They should not want to come across as complete assholes.

Software companies also have problems with piracy, but they don't have the same image problem. I'll write more about software piracy in my next post, in which I'll reveal the real problem with software piracy.

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