You get what you measure

Milena Popova looks at how Google and cinemas are giving people incentives to pirate

Image: CC-AT Flickr: Johan Larsson

You may be familiar with Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s book “Freakonomis” - a collection of curious and entertaining case studies from the world of behavioural economics with subjects ranging from sumo wrestlers to drug dealers. In the introduction to the (less entertaining, less well researched) sequel “Superfreakonomics”, Dubner and Levitt reveal the unifying theme of their work: people respond to incentives.

In the business world this is sometimes known as “You get what you measure” - and that may not necessarily be what you actually wanted or intended. Rumour has it for instance that that strange form of English we call Legalese first emerged because lawyers were paid by the word when drafting letters, contracts and other legal documents. Perverse incentives like this are every organisation’s nightmare. A couple of recent stories from the entertainment industry showcase this nicely.

Google is currently in the process of launching a music streaming and movie rental service for the Android platform. In some ways this is brilliant news - the near-monopoly Apple seems to have on digital content distribution with iTunes isn’t good for anyone but Apple, and some competition could potentially benefit both creators and consumers.

Last week, however, it emerged that ”rooted” Android devices would not be able to access the movie rental service due to “requirements related to copyright protection”. A rooted Android device, not dissimilar to a jailbroken iPhone, is one where the user has gained additional access privileges that allow them extend the functionality of the device.

Whether the decision to exclude rooted devices from the movie rental service is Google’s doing or Hollywood’s isn’t entirely clear - it’s probably a bit of both. What strikes me, though, is that it sends exactly the wrong message. Chances are that users who have the desire and technical ability to root their Android tablet or phone are also perfectly capable of downloading content without paying for it. By deliberately excluding these users from the legitimate, paid-for content service, Google is practically driving them to piracy. I doubt that’s what they intended, but I would be surprised if that wasn’t the effect this measure had.

And just because one own goal isn’t enough for the movie industry, here’s another: The Boston Globe reports that many cinemas (in the US, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was happening in the UK too) are using 3D projection lenses to show 2D movies. The issue here is that showing a 2D movie with a 3D lens leads to up to 85% loss in brightness and a significant loss of colour. You know those adverts you get before movies in the cinema telling you how you shouldn’t pirate movies because you lose the cinema experience? Well, the cinema just killed the cinema experience.

And as BoingBoing points out, one of the main reasons operators don’t change lenses is that Sony’s DRM will often cripple the projector if you make a mistake in the process. From a cinema’s point of view, showing a dimmed movie is better than showing no movie - but how long are cinema goers going to put up with it, if they can watch the movie in the comfort of their own home on the 42-inch HD telly?

People respond to incentives, and if the incentive you give them is to pirate your movie or watch it at home instead of at the cinema, that is indeed what they will do.


Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She tweets as @elmyra

Share this article

Google+ Delicious Digg Facebook Google LinkedIn StumbleUpon Twitter Reddit Newsvine E-mail


Comments (0)

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By Milena Popova on Jun 06, 2011

Featured Article

Schmidt Happens

Wendy M. Grossman responds to "loopy" statements made by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt in regards to censorship and encryption.

ORGZine: the Digital Rights magazine written for and by Open Rights Group supporters and engaged experts expressing their personal views

People who have written us are: campaigners, inventors, legal professionals , artists, writers, curators and publishers, technology experts, volunteers, think tanks, MPs, journalists and ORG supporters.

ORG Events