The Radiohead Mess: Has Stealing Become the Norm?

I hate restrictive DRM schemes, but when you look at the problem facing artists on the Internet, it’s no wonder the music and movie industry use draconian countermeasures.
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According to some suggestions, more than 60 per cent of users who downloaded Radiohead’s new album called “In Rainbows” paid nothing for the music. Fortunately (for Radiohead at any rate), some who downloaded the album did choose to pay a fair price. But what about those fans who didn’t pay? Has stealing become the norm? Is anyone who relies on an Internet honesty box nothing more than an idealistic dreamer waiting to be ripped off?

I wonder how Radiohead feels about the fact that more than 60 per cent of their fans are freeloaders, especially as things are worse than they at appear. That 60 per cent relates only to those who downloaded the album from the official download site. What dilutes the number of honest fans even further is that “In Rainbows” was up and on filesharing sites within minutes of being released. So people who wanted the album for nothing could get it without having to type “0” into the box asking fans how much they wanted to pay. This makes it almost impossible to know how many people really ripped off Radiohead. What we can all be sure of is that overall it’s going to be a lot more than 60 per cent.

Radiohead aren’t the first to try the using the honesty box approach. Back in 2000 horror novelist Stephen King tried exactly the same thing. He released a story over a number of installments and readers could freely download it but were asked to pay a nominal sum (1$) for each installment either before or after downloading. The catch – King warned that if at least 75 per cent of those downloading the installments didn’t pay, he’d can the story. “Pay and the story rolls. Steal and the story folds. No stealing from the blind newsboy.” King tried to push the idea that people who stole were ultimately stealing from themselves because their actions would kill the story and make what they stole worthless in the long run because it wouldn’t be finished.

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Initially people behaved themselves. The percentage of paying readers for the first installment was well over 75 per cent, but this dropped for the second installment to 70 per cent (getting your hands on the second installment was plagued by technical problems and this could well have had an effect on things). Installment three did see 75 per cent of readers paying again. But eventually, as you can guess, people did steal from the blind newsboy, the story folded and that was the end of the experiment.

Partly this happened because King increased the suggested ‘price’ of the installments to $2 (though he did double the page count). When only 46% paid for the fourth installment it finally killed the story. Those readers who paid for each and every installment (like I did) ended up with a permanent half-finished book feeling and a desire that Stephen put a hex on all those who didn’t pay.

Radiohead didn’t place any kind of requirement on users to pay for the album. With “In Rainbows” $0 was acceptable, and since users who paid nothing ended up with the complete album just like those who paid, say, $10, there was no incentive to pay … other than honesty. When you end up with a situation where six out of ten people are willing to put their name to having paid $0 for an album, I think it’s clear that the honesty box is not the best policy. But are people who paid nothing stealing, or are they just taking advantage of the situation? It would be interesting to debate this at length, but I think that taking a whole album for nothing is pushing things a bit too far (the least users could have done is thrown Radiohead a couple bucks).

Next page: The Web makes is easy to steal in secret.

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