The problem with stealing movies is you *can't* pay for them after
Imagine you go into a clothing store and steal a pair of pants. And you get away with it.
Not long after, you realize that, you know, these pants are *really great*. And never mind that, these physical object thingies really do cost people time and effort to produce. You feel guilty. So what do you do?
Well, you sure don't go back to the store and pay retroactively, that's for sure. Not only will you single yourself out and look like a weirdo, but you risk having the police called on you anyway. After all, you just admitted to a crime.
Nonphysical objects like movie downloads aren't quite the same. It doesn't cost the creator a dime if you make your own copy. Obviously it still cost them to create it, so they'll need to get paid somehow. And let's be honest, if someone creates a product - even a digital one that costs nothing to copy - that improves the lives of hundreds of millions of people, they deserve more than just a pittance. They deserve millions of dollars. Maybe hundreds of millions, which is still only a couple of dollars per person. We all know this is true. Even if we think the producers and marketers are morons who seem intent on making our lives worse instead of better, we know that somebody who made this awesome entertaining stuff deserves to get paid. A lot.
Copying a TV series from a friend, watching a few episodes, enjoying it, and then deciding to buy it is easy - and not something that will get you into trouble, because nobody will know but you and your friend. But somehow you'll still feel like a weirdo if you go out to a store and buy it just to relieve your guilt.
Why is that? Why don't people pay for stuff they stole, even if they love it, even if it won't get them into trouble?
Of course I don't know for sure. But I have a couple of thoughts. First of all, going out to the store and buying a DVD is silly; it wastes time and energy, plus you end up with a useless DVD, which is an obsolete form factor much less convenient than the one (file on hard disk) that you got for free. What are you going to do with the DVD? Either throw it away (not likely), sell it (defeats the purpose), or keep it on your shelf forever. Dumb.
You could go buy it on iTunes, I guess. But then you're sponsoring a wannabe monopolist, plus you know you're paying some middleman at Apple for their bandwidth, which you're not even planning to use. You already downloaded the thing.
You could buy it online and have it shipped to you - but then you end up with the useless physical DVD, plus you pay for shipping the useless physical DVD. (Even if the shipping is "free," you know it's hidden in the price somewhere.)
And you also might figure the price is too high. $47 for Season 5 of House, MD? You don't have that kind of money just lying around. Plus you didn't even watch the whole season.
Another reason you don't pay is simple: you just never quite get around to it. And by the time the guilt is overwhelming, you've watched so many shows from so many seasons of so many series that you can't even keep track of what you owe anymore, other than it's now way more money than you have lying around.
What if there was a service that could help?
PayUp.com: "Because you should."
(Note: payup.com is not a real domain name as of this writing. It's just an example.)
Imagine there was a plugin integrated into, say, Boxee or XBMC, that would track what you watched - and give you a dollar value based on the cost of the DVDs. If you have a season of House, MD and a season of Firefly, and you watch half of each one, your total would come to ... half the cost of the two added together.
Then what if, on the first of each month, the plugin pops up a list of the shows you watched but haven't paid for, calculates a bill, and offers to send money to the manufacturers on your behalf?
The amount of money could default to the auto-calculated amount. Or you could assign a monthly budget, and divide it between the shows you watched. Or you could manually override it and send whatever amount you wanted. Or you could have it round up to buy the whole DVD after you watch 50% of it, or whatever.
Then, after you approve the payment, it debits your credit card and the cards of all the other users, and buys a bunch of DVDs from Amazon.com (or whatever) based on what the users chose to pay for.
So if you pay for 10% of House, MD, Season 5, and nine other people do too, the service buys 1 copy on your behalf. Amazon ships the DVD to Payup.com, which promises never to open the DVD, and just stores it in the warehouse forevermore (or just destroys it). Maybe they charge 5-10% of the purchase price for being the middle man. Maybe they can get a bulk distribution deal somewhere and not charge any extra at all (since, after all, there's no more "free" shipping and handling charge).
A typical cost for cable TV is $60 a month or more; that's more than a full season of House, MD, which is more TV than I can handle in a month. (Of course, some people watch much more TV than me.) What if you cancelled your TV subscription and just assigned $60 a month for payup fees instead?
This won't make your movie stealing any more legally sound. But morally? That's up to you.
The Payup.com service, of course, would be a bit of a strange entity. Think of it as Netflix without the distribution. Sure, business people think distribution is everything, but that's old fashioned thinking. This is the 21st century. In the 21st century, distribution is free and everybody can do it, so you'd better find some other way to add value.
Think about that. Distribution is free and everybody can do it. Of course, it's not really free yet. It seems free to you and me, because we pay our monthly internet bill, and as long as we don't go over the limit, we don't pay extra. And we can copy DVDs for our friends for less than $0.50 each. But if you're Apple or Amazon or Hulu or Google, distribution sure the heck isn't free. Outside of licensing, it's probably your #1 cost, your most complicated technical overhead, and it hurts your business every time you have to pay for it.
So distribution isn't valuable. What's valuable is getting money back to the copyright holders. Because when copyright holders don't get paid, all we have left is Youtube, and God help us all.
What if you could build a business around not the distribution, but just the paying for licenses? Okay, sure, BitTorrent sharing of movies is illegal and all, but that's kind of a side issue. It's not like your service is making it easier to steal stuff. That's already easy. You're just making it easy to give money to the copyright holders. You're totally taking the moral high ground here. You're turning a net loss - piracy - into a net gain - vastly reduced distribution costs (zero) and paying customers.
The Pirate Bay deserved to lose their court case because as much as they tried to pretend otherwise, they totally lacked the moral high ground, and were playing legal tricks to try to dodge that simple fact. The Pirate Bay could only reduce, never increase, income for copyright holders. Payup.com will be different; not only will it directly provide income to copyright holders, but it'll make services like The Pirate Bay retroactively less evil. Suddenly not all the piracy it caused would be a loss of income.
Of course the copyright holders won't see it that way. Your Payup.com will probably get sued. But when that happens, how can you lose? You're not doing anything wrong. Basically, you're accepting donations from users and forwarding them on to the copyright holders. You're not copying content, indexing content, linking to content, sharing content, or anything of the sort. In fact, you have nothing to do with the content whatsoever. That can't be illegal, can it? (Disclaimer: I really don't know. Talk to a lawyer.)
What about your users? Are they at risk? After all, sending you 10% of the cost of House, MD seems to suggest that they copied the other 90% without paying... or that they copied any of it without a license. But is it really true? Is it sufficient evidence for the police to demand your customer list and start arresting people? I don't know. If it's framed as just donations - I really like this show, and I want to pay you extra for it, but I really don't want another useless DVD - then maybe not.
Is the only reason this won't work, the same reason you can't go back to the store and pay for your stolen pants? If so, that's pretty sad.
Or maybe people just won't pay for stuff if you don't force them to. I don't want to live in such a world. Maybe I'm just a naive Canadian and/or a communist. But I'd pay for this service if it existed. Firefly and Futurama need more donations than the cost of a mere DVD.