Of Paywalls and Piracy


I have a problem. I want something (access to WSJ’s content), but I don’t want to pay money for it. 😞

Isoroku’s tutorial yesterday resulted in some debate, much of which concerned business models, ethics, and 17 U.S. Code § 1201.

We’ve seen this story play out before. Remember Napster? Kazaa? What happened to illegal music downloads? People didn’t collectively decide to stop pirating music in 2004 and become law-abiding citizens. Instead, music became much easier to obtain through legitimate means.

I refer to Stratechery, which (believe it or not) I pay for. Ben Thompson discusses the evolution of music distribution:

The fact of the matter is that pirating music is a huge pain in the rear end relative to the alternative. Consider how music distribution has evolved from the time of the original iPod…

Legitimate Pirate Advantage
Buy CD, Rip, Sync Download, Sync Piracy
iTunes, Sync Download, Sync Legitimate (Slightly)
iTunes on iPhone Download, Sync Legitimate (Huge)
Stream Download, Sync Legitimate (Massive)

Convenience killed piracy, and the iTunes on your phone is already pretty damn convenient.

Today, it’s so easy to pull up iTunes that no one bothers looking for music on The Pirate Bay.

Until Kanye.

Kanye West released his latest album exclusively on Tidal, a premium streaming service. He suddenly made the legitimate channel much, much more onerous:

Legitimate Pirate Advantage
Sign up for Tidal Download, Sync Piracy (Massive)

Anyone who wants streaming music already has an account with a streaming music service, and that service sure as hell isn’t Tidal. So those who want Kanye’s music now need to pay another $156/year for Tidal. It’s easier just to pirate the damn thing.

And that’s what everybody did.

Paywall publications have put up the same barriers: A Wall Street Journal subscription costs $348 per year. WSJ readers probably also read Barron’s ($132/year) and FT ($335/year). Throw in the occasional Washington Post ($99/year), Economist ($152/year), or NY Times ($195/year) article, and you’re running quite a tab.

More importantly, casual readers don’t actually visit any of these sites. They click on links through Twitter, newsletters, or aggregators.

For one-off access, readers will choose the Google-search-paywall trick every time, because the subscription barrier is just too high.

To stop people from sneaking around paywalls, publishers need to make it much, much easier to become a paying customer.

It doesn’t help to make it harder to swipe the content. If piracy becomes impossible, people will simply stop clicking on paywall links. Information is a commodity, and most of the content published in the Wall Street Journal is later regurgitated on Business Insider anyway.


Digital publishers will plug the Referer/User-Agent hack in Isoroku’s post. As commenters pointed out, websites could perform a reverse-DNS lookup to verify the identity of the visitor.

Casual readers who still want the content, but not enough to pay the subscription fee, will share subscriptions. Content-providers should be okay with this. Netflix and HBO GO encourage account-sharing — HBO president Richard Plepler called it a “terrific marketing vehicle,” because sharers tend to get their own accounts later.

Maybe readers will create a pooled subscription vehicle to share subscriptions to many different publishers. Until then, modifying headers to look like Googlebot is just too convenient.

See Also:
Kanye West and Tidal, The Problem with Exclusivity –stratechery (paywall)

2 thoughts on “Of Paywalls and Piracy

  1. So except for Kanye West’s album, obtaining music is pretty easy these days. It’s affordable. There are multiple providers (e.g. Spotify, Google Play Music, Apple Music) which cost approximately the same, whose contents hardly differ, and whose contents are sort of exhaustive.

    I think the real issue is with movies and series. The situation is likely better in the US (in Germany, there *is* netflix e.g. but they hardly have anything, google play is similar, hulu doesn’t exist, and especially for movies, you often only get a dubbed version. A Japanese movie with German dubbing isn’t fun to watch). But even in the US I would assume if you actually want to be able to watch what you feel like at any time (rather than a “just show me an series that isn’t terrible to keep my eyes busy”) you’ll actually need multiple subscriptions. Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon, maybe more? That gets pretty expensive.

    For newspapers, the situation is greatly improving as of late. Blendle[1], which allows you to pay per article, has launched in the Netherlands a while ago, gone international by expanding to Germany last year, and the step across the great lake is planned, too. Now you might ask “why would I care about Dutch or German newspapers?”. Even now, they have a few English-language newpapers already. The Economist, NYT, WSJ(!), WP, …
    Plus there’s also Inkl[2] hailing from Australia, which has all kinds of English-language newspapers, allows you to pay-per-article (a lot more afforable than Blendle!) or an affordable flatrate for (almost) their entire range. It’s legally restricted to smartphones (but it too only checks your UA, hah) and the iPhone app e.g. could still be improved upon, but I’m rather optimistic about the future 🙂

    [1] http://blendle.com
    [2] http://inkl.com

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