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FEATURE17 September 2013

Monitoring the media pirates

Features

Matt Mason was right: piracy is a great source of insight and inspiration, and the success of Netflix proves it.

Video streaming service Netflix uses an interesting source of data to determine what TV shows and movies to add to its on-demand service: piracy sites.

According to the BBC (via Dutch news site Tweakers), the company keeps an eye on what’s popular on illegal file-sharing sites and that information informs its content acquisition strategy. “The US firm gave Prison Break as an example of one programme it had bought as a consequence of using the strategy,” reports the BBC.

It’s a smart move on Netflix’s part – and one that has long been advocated by former pirate radio DJ-turned-author Matt Mason. Mason wrote a book in 2008 called The Pirate’s Dilemma, in which he explained how piracy can be an invaluable source of innovation and insight. Research interviewed Mason for a podcast in 2009. Here’s the full transcript of the interview:

I grew up in London and I was a pirate radio DJ as a teenager. As well as being very into the music and the whole scene around that, I was fascinated with the concept of how [pirate radio] seemed to work, because it was illegal to broadcast without a licence but none of the major record labels and nobody else much seemed to mind about pirate radio. It was always something that was seen as OK, and that it was adding value to the British music industry.

Most of the music played on pirate radio isn’t music that’s going to get played in the daytime on Radio 1, but of course, once it’s been played enough on pirate radio, music does eventually cross over to the legal stations. So it creates this very interesting situation where the pirates actually add value to what legitimate businesses are doing.

I began to notice this happening more and more with other businesses as well. If you go back through the history of almost any media format – from the birth of the record industry to the birth of Hollywood – you’ll find people at the beginning doing things that were very disruptive who were branded as pirates by people who didn’t like what they were doing.

When Edison invented the phonographic record player, musicians called him a pirate because they thought this machine that reproduced what they did live was going to put them out of business. They couldn’t see the new revenue stream it was going to create.

When some new disruptive innovation or technology comes along we go through this period of chaos where some people may look like they’re simply stealing – and in some cases they are – but in the long term we always do find value in these situations.

Hollywood has been really good at learning from piracy in the last few years. This is an industry that’s not very good at welcoming new innovations with open arms. Hollywood tried to outlaw the video recorder when it first happened, and every major technological shift they’ve been through has been a similar story.

But with online they’ve actually been pretty good. You have sites like Hulu in the US, which has a ton of movies on there and new TV shows go up as soon as they air, and the site is making more money than YouTube.

It’s quite a simple idea – to think that if someone is doing something illegal then the way around it is to just copy what they are doing. It is counter-intuitive, but it does work, and I think we’re going to see it grow and grow until it’s quite a mundane and obvious business practice.

I don’t think this is always the right approach though. There are times when you should be fighting piracy. There are times when the only sensible thing to do is to defend your intellectual property. But if the pirates are doing something you’re not, if they are doing something your customers are responding to in some way, then it’s probably worth a look.

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