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How to Reduce Casual Piracy on Mobile Devices

By Shelly Palmer (bio), Host of WNBC's Digital Life with Shelly Palmer

Why Can't I Pay You?

I hate being a criminal. It's really no fun at all. I bet you hate it too. But the amount of casual piracy that is woven into the fabric of our digital lives is really starting to bother me.

One of my good friends just sent me an email. He just returned from a weeklong trip and wanted me to hear this, "new, great song" that he downloaded from a friend while he was away. I have no idea what song it is. It has a cryptic filename, no song name, no artist's name, no metadata. It is truly a pirated work because without any identification it has no promotional value. I had no luck with the usual music identification services and the worst part … there was no way to pay for it … even if I wanted to.

This got me thinking about the plethora of new handheld devices. I have my new iPhone 4 and my slightly older, but still brand new Verizon BlackBerry Bold 9650. I'm very impressed with Sprint's HTC EVO and its 4G WiMax capability. Next week, Verizon and Moto will release the new Droid X, which is billed as the all-singing, all-dancing Android-based handset and on and on. Then, there's my iPad, my Kindle 2 and about fifty competitive tablets and e-Readers either here or on the way.

All of these devices have MAC addresses (Media Access Control Address), which is basically a globally unique number assigned to each device by the manufacturer. Technically, your computer does too. But, the handhelds are generally sold by networks with a contract for network access. The difference is profound. You can't use your Verizon phone on the AT&T network unless you contact both companies and they switch the service for you. In practice any compatible device will work on any compatible network, but the network will require a billing relationship with the device before you use it. As I said, when you use your computer to access the Internet, you do not need permission from any network owner — you just need access to the Internet.

This should not come as news to you, but stating the obvious points out a non-trivial difference between the open Internet and the upcoming wireless broadband universe. The telephone companies (carriers) have been expert in extracting every single cent from every possible billable feature on every device. This is possible because they own your access to content from end to end. (The term of art is a "Walled Garden." It's beautiful on the inside, but a prison, none the less.) Is that the future? If I am a content provider, must I sell through a carrier to make a sale in the mobile broadband world?

If so, what happens when I get an email like the one I just received from my friend. It has a file attached that I have no way to purchase. How might we solve this problem? Do we need the carriers to get involved? They have a billing relationship with each user. In theory, the carriers could bill for content if they knew it was supposed to be charged for.

Of course, we might invent a tool that enabled content owners to identify their work and a small piece of computer code that would identify copyrighted material and offer the prospective user an option to purchase it. Such a button would actually allow us complete unrelated micro-transactions on any connected device. It would certainly help keep honest people honest.

Who gets paid and how is always the number one question in the meetings I attend. With the advent and explosive growth of identifiable broadband devices, it's really time to work on some systems that will allow us seriously reduce casual piracy. No one wants to be a criminal and most people who can afford smart phones and broadband plans are willing to pay fairly for what they consume … we just need to give them a way.

About the Author: Shelly Palmer is the host of "Digital Life with Shelly Palmer," a weekly half-hour television show about living and working in a digital world which can be seen on WNBC-TV's NY Nonstop Tuesdays at 10p Eastern and online, and the host of "MediaBytes," a daily news show that features insightful commentary and a unique insiders take on the biggest stories in technology, media, and entertainment. He is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group, LLC an industry-leading advisory and business development firm and the President of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NY (the organization that bestows the coveted Emmy® Awards). Mr. Palmer is the author of Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV (2008, York House Press) and the upcoming, Get Digital: Reinventing Yourself and Your Career for the 21st Century Economy (2009, Lake House Press). You can join the MediaBytes mailing list here. Shelly can be reached at For information visit

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