Anything that is Digital has no National Borders

With the battle raging over SOPA and PIPA, the copyright war is as hot as it has ever been. The same points have been repeated ad nauseam, but there is one aspect that is not emphasized enough. SOPA and PIPA supporters often claim that these laws only affect sites outside the United States. Even if that were true, that’s a point against these laws, not for them! The national segregation on the part of media companies needs to end. Whether they like it or not, anything that is digital ignores all borders, and now is the time to stop fighting it.

In the days before the Internet, national borders were solid walls. If a movie was released in country A, and you lived in country B, it was almost impossible to see it. Maybe you could see it during a vacation in country A. Your only realistic hope was for someone to physically import the film. Even with VHS that would only help you if you spoke the language of the other country, or someone with equipment and time generously subtitled it. Without that, you simply had to wait and hope some local company would license and redistribute the movie in your home country. Any work that managed to achieve international distribution was nothing short of a miracle.

It wasn’t all bad. Miracles do happen. The most popular of things did get released internationally. Beatles albums, for example, were available in many countries.  Disappointingly, they couldn’t leave well enough alone. The UK release of Rubber Soul had different tracks from the North American release. The same was true for almost every international release across all media in those days. Completely unchanged releases across regions were the true miracles.

Why would they do this? The producers had some ideas, that may or may not be true, about what would appeal to different cultures in different countries. If you have enough money to produce different versions of your art for different audiences, and your ideas about cultural preferences are correct, why wouldn’t you segregate to sell more copies? When playing a live concert, doesn’t a musician play different songs in different cities? Why wouldn’t your album have different tracks in different countries? As long as every country gets every song, I really don’t see a problem with having them reconfigured onto different discs in different orders.

And there wasn’t much of a problem. The vast majority of fans in North America had no idea that the tracks were different in the UK, and vice versa. They got away with it so well for so long, that they still continue this behavior today. It is now a humongous problem. How can you possibly have the exact same business strategy as fifty years ago, and not even realize there’s a problem?

Today you absolutely can not get away with these kinds of edits. Everyone who cares will find out immediately. When video games and comic books are censored for different markets, articles on the web instantly crop up listing in excruciating detail every single difference between the versions. When video games are released with different box art, or books have different cover art, everyone ends up seeing every version. Even board games are not immune to this. It is impossible to keep the secret, but they still try.

Not only is it impossible to keep the secret, but heaven help you if one country gets more than another. The DVD from one country has bonus features not released in the other? It will take maybe two seconds for people to flood the post office and start exporting the superior version.

Even worse is when companies try to set different prices in different countries. A movie on DVD in Japan might cost $40+ while the same DVD in the US is $15 at most. Even with the cost of shipping, importing DVDs from the US is definitely a money saving move. When international shipping is a cost savings, something is extremely wrong.

I’ve also seen cases where simply knowing that their country is being overcharged causes people to stop buying. In Australia video game prices are famously much higher than in other countries. Some people import games, but many just don’t buy them at all. Even if they could afford to buy them, they don’t. They know the international prices. They know they are being overcharged, so they buy fewer games.

There have been a few attempts to technologically prevent importing and exporting of media. All of them are futile. DVD region codes have been useless for a very long time. Even now with the Nintendo 3DS being region locked a hack will definitely appear, if it hasn’t already. If it doesn’t, people will import the console itself. Creating this region locking technology must cost companies time and money. They must be better off not fighting such a futile battle. Heck, you regularly see entire arcade machines that are technically not supposed to cross international borders. If such big machines can make the trip, there’s no stopping digital copies of anything.

The most hilarious is when you go on Spotify and it lists the top tracks. Any songs not available in your country are listed, but grayed out. What do they think happens? Everyone immediately will go to The Pirate Bay and type in the names of these artists. Why do they list them in gray when they could just remove them from the list entirely? My guess is that it is an intentional design decision by Spotify. They probably don’t agree with the region locking and are forced into it by the record companies. They know that you are going to pirate those songs, so they keep them in the list to help those artists create an international fanbase.

Here is one particularly egregious example concerning My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Clarification From Hasbro About Regional DVD Sales and Episode Releases.  You have a product that has become internationally popular because it was illegally, and inevitably, distributed worldwide on the Internet. Now you completely fail to have it legally available in any form. Your customers who want to give you money are left with almost no choice but to pirate it.

Could they wait for the legal release? Yes, but there’s no guarantee if or when it will happen. There’s also no guarantee it won’t be modified and ruined by poor translation or censorship. If someone is forced to wait, there are so many other entertainment options they are guaranteed to look elsewhere. Most likely they will forget about you, and now you’ve really lost a sale. At least if they pirate they might become a huge fan and remember you when you finally get around to a legal release, or buy your other merchandise.

Now famous is the story of how Valve software reduced game piracy in Russia. Russia is a country where piracy rates are through the roof. Lots of people don’t even bother releasing their products there because piracy is so widespread they will make almost no sales. Then how come Valve made sales? Did they use magic? No, they simply released the exact same product in Russia at the exact same time they released in every other country on Earth, and let them pay in rubles. A true global release. And of course, it works.

Russia is a classic chicken and egg situation. Not enough things being available lead to pirating. Pirating lead to less things being available. That lead to more pirating. The only way to break the cycle is to make things legally available. Valve broke the cycle. Can the bone-headed old world companies ever do the same? They haven’t yet, and I doubt they ever will.

In this day and age, even time zones matter. If you have a midnight release, guess what? It’s midnight on the East Coast of the USA three hours before midnight on the West Coast. Your product can be uploaded and transferred to the entire world before the Central Time Zone release, let alone the Pacific. If it’s a midnight release in the East, then it’s a 10PM release in the West. You have no choice in this matter. The people of California aren’t going to wait three hours. You had better open your doors before they close their wallets.

What I find most hilarious is when web sites try to restrict themselves to one geographic region. Welcome to new social network X, now available in Canada. Uh, dude. It’s the world wide web. When you put something on the web, it’s available world wide. You can’t keep anyone out. Look at how hard Hulu, Netflix, and BBC fail to keep people in different countries from getting access, and it never works. Lots of online games in South Korea try unsuccessfully to keep out players from other countries. Why do they even try?

There is always an issue of translation cost. If there is any language in your product, you must localize it for each market. Each localization costs money. And what if a Swahili translation is a big economic risk considering how few sales you are likely to get? What can you do about that?

Don’t do anything. Don’t do the Swahili translation. But you should still release it in Swahili speaking nations, and include every localization that you have available. If someone buys it and does a fan translation, now you have discovered, or even created, some fans. Maybe by the time the sequel is done the risk of translating to Swahili will be much lower. Maybe you will know for sure that it’s not worth the cost to translate into Swahili, but hey, you sold three extra copies in English and two in French. Five is more than zero, and it cost you nothing extra to make it available to them.

Another thing I’ve noticed is companies that feel an absolute necessity to market something. They can’t release a product unless they market the hell out of it, and they really care about the timing of the marketing coinciding with the release.

First of all, digital marketing is also international. If you advertise on the web, you’ve already advertised to the world. A big part of the problem is when companies unintentionally create demand in countries they aren’t serving. If I make you want something very badly, and then don’t offer it to you legally, of course you are going to pirate it if that is your only available option.

Also, there is nothing wrong with making something available without marketing it. Ok, you only made two sales in Argentina because you didn’t market there. Who cares? You made two sales! It cost you nothing to make it available to them. That’s only positive.

Lastly, the timing means nothing. Even Apple seems to get this one wrong. You released in Argentina a year ago. Now you decide you want to start marketing there. The people will not care that your product was released so long ago. It’s not food. It doesn’t spoil. Your advertising will be no less effective. In fact, some of the biggest advertisers are food companies like McDonald’s, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola. Their advertising still works on products that were released decades ago. Advertising your one year old product will be just fine.

Here’s what it all comes down to. In terms of selling any product that can take a digital form, every release is a worldwide simultaneous release, whether you like it or not. If you fail to treat it as such, you will simply be hurting yourself and nobody else. Whatever it is you are selling, you need to make the exact some product available in every single country on Earth at the exact same second at the exact same price, no exceptions, period. If the product is digital, it costs nothing extra whatsoever to simply make it available. Do it.

Trying to remove the world from the world wide web is impossible. It’s simultaneously baffling and hilarious to see so many people try so hard to achieve this impossible goal. There has to be more than one company on this planet who is willing to end this charade.

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