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I recently got an Android phone; among the apps I’ve discovered are two content providers that have radically different (but equally flawed) philosophies on distribution.

One (i Music) lets you download mp3s for free, the other (TV.com) lets you watch really bad CBS shows, but not the good ones…

So what does TV.com get wrong? What’s the catch with i Music? What are these content providers doing wrong, and how are they actually encouraging piracy? How does all this apply to books and what’s a simple, one-step solution to it? All that and more, after the jump.

Part I: A Tale of Two Android Apps

Let’s give away mp3s?

So i Music is a thinly-veiled graphical front-end for pirating music. It’s only lasted this long because of Android’s open app store policy, and because i Music doesn’t host any mp3s on its own server.

i Music’s EULA is a poorly worded disclaimer, full all caps and red fonts, clearly trying to protect i Music’s coders from legal retribution. (Not only are there ads in the app, there’s also a paid version, and I’m guessing i Music doesn’t pay royalties.)

Points 4 through 6 of the EULA explain how they rationalize allowing users to freely download copyrighted mp3s: you have to delete them after you listen to them. That’s it. It’s more another legal smokescreen than it is a viable way to distribute content.

I’m not sure who checks on whether people delete their songs, or how they check, or if, but I am sure that i Music won’t be around for long. It’s been here for three months already, and I’m surprised it’s lasted this long.


No, let’s give away the crap we don’t care about

TV.com takes the opposite approach. It claims that it “brings personal TV to your phone,” but that’s not exactly the case. Mostly, it brings advertising for TV shows to your phone. The list of shows that offer full episodes is artificially inflated by archives of old shows like Dynasty, Beauty and the Beast, and Family Ties. From the current CBS shows available in full episodes, notably missing are good and/or popular shows.

I’ve been known to guiltily watch an episode of The Mentalist or even How I Met Your Mother, but I’m not touching CSI:Miami with a pole. Guess which one of those three shows has full episodes available through TV.com?

CBS does offer a couple of big-ticket shows, notably Survivor and CSI (regular), but there’s no Cold Case, no Criminal Minds, no Two and a Half Men. The CW and Showtime are even worse, offering precisely zero full episodes. That makes sense for Showtime, a pay-to-play network, but the CW? Surely another way to watch Gossip Girl wouldn’t hurt them.

On CBS.com, you can watch full episodes of How I Met Your Mother, but not any of the others missing from TV.com.

What gives? There are ads on the online versions of these shows, so they’re making money off them. And I actually watch the ads, since I can’t change channels. The only thing I can think of is that CBS makes more money off people watching the shows on the actual TV channel.

This is very, very dumb on CBS’s part.

Isn’t there a middle ground?

i Music is doomed. Sorry, but they’re going to go down and go down hard. Relying on the goodwill (and non-laziness) of people will fail.

On the other hand, the big lesson that CBS (and other content providers, including Amazon) needs to learn is this: exclusivity doesn’t benefit customers. If we have to tune in a specific channel at a specific time to see a show, maybe you’ll create more demand, but you’ll damn sure lose a lot of customers on the way.

People like me are much more likely to miss your stupid “appointment viewing” and watch something else on Hulu, or download your shows from Bittorrent without any commercials at all. If, on the other hand, you make your shows EASY to watch, you’ll get more viewers.

Two things to learn from all this (and for other media providers). One: people are lazy. Two: if you make things easy for them, while still maintaining some control, you’ll get more customers. Your first priority should be to make and keep customers, not to make money. Once you commit to your customers, the money will come.

Part II: Piracy is a Reflection of Customer Dissatisfaction

Let’s bring in the issue of piracy.

In my eyes, piracy is largely the result of customers not only being dissatisfied with media companies, but also feeling like those companies couldn’t care less about them, the customers.

How does this manifest? How can media companies treat their customers well (and make more money in the process)? And how does this relate to books and DRM? All that and a simple one-step fix for all this, just ahead

If you don’t give customers what they want, pirates will steal it

If I want to watch an episode of The Mentalist, CBS only gives me one option (and a half): I have to tune in at whatever time it’s on, or TiVo it (in which case, I won’t watch any commercials). If I miss an episode on the TV, I’m SOL until the DVDs come out. There’s no way to watch it online.

The other option, of course, is to Bittorrent the show and watch it with no commercials and no income for CBS. That’s not a cost issue (at least with TV); it’s merely about convenience. So the appointment-TV idea is losing CBS money or fans, or probably both. The weirdest thing is, online TV is a very good deal for advertisers and networks, since there aren’t any other channels to flip to during commercials; personally, I watch many more commercials online than on a regular TV.

Piracy in other media

For movies and music, the equation is a bit different. People have the sense that media companies are out to take their money, because they’re often fooled into buying crappy media that was mismarketed. The last movie I saw was Sherlock Holmes. Decent action movie, but more of a Da Vinci Code with fistfights than anything approaching a Sherlock Holmes story.

That feeling, that I’ve been duped, is exactly why I don’t pay for many movies anymore. It’s also the reason I don’t buy as many albums as I used to. With Pandora and online radio, it doesn’t make much sense to pay for albums that you might hate.

People don’t pirate as many books, they just don’t read them

The reason the publishing industry is dying is because they chronically mismarket books in order to sell more copies. How many times have you read an unfunny piece of garbage that was touted as “hilarious” or “dazzling”?

Since books take a much longer commitment than music or movies or TV shows, the real cost of bad books is wasted time. Publishers sell a lot of really bad books and they lie to customers to get us to buy them. That means readers can’t trust publishers at their word, and so finding a good book to read becomes a torturous slog through acres of mismarketed trash.

Why is James Patterson a bestseller? Because he’s safe. His books are known quantities. You might not (you definitely won’t) get the mind-bending, soul-crushing pathos of a great classic, but neither will you get a $25 paperweight that wastes twelve hours of your life.

Pretty much the entire publishing industry is built on such known quantities, and yet they refuse to extrapolate that idea and make sure customers are satisfied with the books they buy. If you knew that you’d love every book you bought, you’d read twice as many.

I often dread starting books, especially hyped ones, because I know with near certainty that I’ll be let down. If publishers set out to make sure I loved every book I paid for, they’d be making fans by the truckload.

There’s a way to do that, and it doesn’t even require that publishers stop lying.

A simple one-step DRM solution for all media

OK, not quite all. The Hulu model solved TV; why CBS doesn’t get on board is beyond me. But for everything else, here’s a solution.

It’s very simple: you institute trial periods. You buy a book, you get 48 hours to try it out. DRM is stringent, and only lets you keep the book (or album, or movie) on whatever device you downloaded it on. If you delete in those first 48 hours, you get your money back. If you keep it, the DRM comes off and you pay for it. You can only delete a given book once; the second time you can’t get a refund.

This isn’t my idea, this is how the Android app store works: automatic refunds for apps you don’t want. And it works very, very well because it takes the sting out of buyer’s remorse.

This wouldn’t require publishers to honestly market books (and hence uproot the entire industry), it wouldn’t require people to prove they didn’t like something, and it would lead to many, many more books sold. It’s a simple, technological solution to a complex problem.

In fact, it’s so simple and easy, I doubt publishers will ever get on board. Just like CBS rejecting online TV distribution, publishers are prioritizing short-term returns over the long-term health of their industry, and that’s a recipe for a slow death every time.