People still pirate things. Of course they do. Because, despite 14 post-Napster years of piracy in the mainstream, studios still don't get it. Consider the $100 Dark Knight Trilogy boxed set that came out just last week:
Now on September 24, Nolan’s three Batman films – Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises – will be released by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment as The Dark Knight Trilogy: Ultimate Collector’s Edition. The six-disc set will feature all three films with their existing extra content, two new featurettes and exclusive new collectible memorabilia. This must-own collection for fans of DC Comics’ Caped Crusader is available in premium packaging and will sell for $99.97 SRP.
Noticeably missing from that rundown of the $100 boxed set? Any reference to digital media at all. In 2013. Does anyone actually think this makes sense?
Update: We neglected to mention the UltraViolet copy of the movies included in the boxed set (which Warner Bros. includes with all new theatrical releases) in the original post. Separate issues with UV as a whole are addressed here, but the TDK set is not a special case offender. The original follows.
Physical vs. Digital Is a False Dichotomy
You could argue that a movie boxed set is a boutique purchase, to be placed on a shelf and admired by enthusiasts. But that belies the real issue here. Mega-fans will always be happy to plunk down a large wad of cash on a nicely packaged set, sure. But there's no reason to thank that fan for her purchase, and then grab her by the ankles and shake her upside down for the rest of her lunch money when she asks about a digital copy.
The choice we're left with when this happens is to buy a separate digital copy of the same movies we just spent $100 on, or to pirate. Guess which makes more sense to people? Some pirate because it's free, and easy, but for many, it comes down to the convenience of it all. Just like you stick all your DVDs or books on a shelf, you can keep all your pirated files in a folder titled Movies on a hard drive or media server, or even transcode them and stick them in iTunes. It's dead simple, if a little tedious.
You know how you get piracy to stop, or at least slow down dramatically? Match that simplicity and stamp out the tedium. So far, no one has.
There have been some lazy gestures in that direction. UltraViolet, the digital standard backed by most studios, is on the right track. Movies or TV shows you get from participating content owners can be downloaded to the UV app, played through Flixter or Vudu, or streamed from a central library. In theory, that's pretty convenient. In practice, guhhhh.
Ultraviolet is bad because new standards never overtake something that's entrenched and works well—Apple, Amazon, and Google all check both boxes—and it gives you no way to integrate to or from those services. It is only convenient, then, for keeping your stuff in "one place" if you consider that one place to be "the internet" or "a tablet." Want to watch an UltraViolet movie on your Apple TV? Your options are to mirror it from your iPad, or to give up.
It's not even that the bean counters would shoot down the inclusion digital codes (maybe?). The real issue is that the digital download is so removed from the idea of a unified experience. It probably never occurred to anyone in the first place. Instead, digital is treated as a separate, competing product, when really it's anything but. It's complementary.
While infrastructure limitations mean that Blu-ray discs will outpace streaming quality for the foreseeable future, this is really the first time we've had two entirely different standards—digital and physical—concurrent. There's been overlap in the past, but while it made no sense to bundle a CD with a cassette, the same people who watch Blu-ray also, largely, watch digital content. Often on the same machine.
Digital downloads cater to DRM phobias aplenty, but that can all be sidestepped. With every physical media purchase, include a field for orders asking for a preference on marketplace—Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc.—and include a download code with the set. Maybe slip whichever ecosystem the code goes to some of the vig.
It's not exactly that easy, because nothing ever is. Apple's resisted UltraViolet because it's just one avenue to get at the content, and the door remains open. But by working with studios to get a download code to its own system included with purchases, the door would shut behind you. The only loss of sale that happens there is in not forcing some poor fan to re-buy the content he literally JUST bought. Apple, Google, or whomever gets a customer plunked into their digital ecosystem, and everyone gets a load of goodwill, which is worth something. So let's try that.
You Can (And Should) Offer Both
Every movie, book, comic, and album should come with a digital download code. DRM is fine if it's to one of the main hubs, or anywhere you actually use, unlike UltraViolet. Or a give a choice of them if you're selling from a platform-neutral place. How much better do you think the Nook (and Barnes and Noble) would be doing if every book sold at B&N also showed up on your Nook? That, almost instantly, stops your "Amazon showroom" problem, right? And it's a nice way of not telling your customers to go screw themselves.
The Xbox One understood this, and tried to begin the process of uniting physical and digital. If you bought a game on a disc, or were given one as a gift, because for whatever reason people still like getting actual things instead of cards that say, "Here, asshole, enter this code and download this thing I got you later," that game would show up in your digital library. It would be attached to your account. That feature got blown up after fans decided that the accompanying restrictions were too big of a change too quickly.
It's not like the Xbox One is alone there. Just about the only place where this is (mostly) right is, strangely, comic books. Marvel has been including digital codes with its physical books for several months now. This lets you buy a comic once (if you buy it in a comic shop), and have it in all the formats you'd want. The code doesn't just go to Marvel's own app, but to the Comixology app (which powers Marvel, DC, Image, etc.), which has comics from every publisher. It's not just a show of goodwill toward the brick and mortars that are staring down the barrell of digital, it's an understanding that collectible things are enjoyed in two separate ways. We love having them, either as decoration or to pick through the pages and get lost in nostalgia from time to time. But we nerds also like—love, really—the encyclopedic, sortable, searchable database of everything we've ever bought or read. It's why so many comic bins and DVD and book shelves are meticulously sorted, categorized, and labeled. And we shouldn't have to choose.
In fact, sometimes we don't have to. Amazon's got AutoRip for music, which automatically adds mp3s to your library when you buy a CD. It basically says, yeah, chances are you're going to rip this yourself or download it without remorse, so here, let us just do that for you. It's great. It was even retroactive on Amazon purchases. And it works because it gives you incentive to stay with Amazon. The loyalty factor can work for everyone else, even without the massive Amazon's massive storefront.
But really, this is easy. The central tenet of getting everyone to stop pirating remains untouched: Make it easy, affordable, GOOD, and convenient, and we'll buy it. We will. But the corollary that apparently needs to be spelled out in torrent packet lists and middle fingers stands just as large: We don't want to buy things twice. Or three times. Or five. We hate that you think we will. Yes, there are times when it makes sense to reissue a movie or book or comic, but not in the very first wave of the releases.
People will still buy digitally, because it's just easier. And they'll buy physical because they like owning things. But you should not be relying on people who've bought one to run out and pay double for the other. Because they won't. They'll just pirate it instead.