It’s not news that the main reason the movie and television industries are wary of BitTorrent is that they’re freaked out by the music industry’s experience with piracy.
Although they see the economic advantages of P2P distribution, they’re concerned that once they put their stuff out there, even wrapped in triple layers of kryptonite DRM, it might be cracked and then circulate in unprotected form. For movies, that’s lost revenues. For TV shows, that means ads could be stripped out, expiration routines could be removed and (gasp!) content could be modified or remixed.
All that counts as Very Scary Stuff to industry executives, and as a result they’re looking for “strong” DRM before they consider letting their premier content circulate online. This is a mistake, for two reasons:
The first is about the user experience: Any protection technology that is really difficult to crack is probably too cumbersome to be accepted by consumers.
We’ve seen all sorts of failures of this sort before, from dongles to laborious and confusing registration schemes. Each seems better at annoying consumers than at building markets. The lesson from these examples is that zero-percent piracy is not only unattainable, it’s economically suboptimal. If your content is uncrackable, it means you’ve probably locked the market down so tight that even honest consumers are being inconvenienced.
Instead, efficient software and entertainment markets should exhibit just enough piracy to suggest that the industry has got the balance of control about right: not too loose and not too tight. That number is not zero percent (which requires protection methods so invasive they kill demand), and it’s not 100% (which kills the business). It’s somewhere in-between.
The second reason the quest for zero-piracy is a mistake is an economic one: piracy can actually let you raise your prices.
I’ll give you a surprising example. I was chatting with a former Microsoft manager the other day and he revealed that after much analysis Microsoft had realized that some piracy is not only inevitable, but could actually be economically optimal. The reason is counterintuitive, but intriguing.
The usual price-setting method is to look at the entire potential market, from the many at the economic lower end to the few at the top, and set a price somewhere in between the top and bottom that will maximize total revenues. But if you cede the bottom to piracy, you can set a price between the top and the middle. The result: higher revenues per copy, and potentially higher revenues overall.