the cost of nothing

I’m a big fan of 16-bit games – I think that in many ways games produced in the mid-nineties are superior to their modern-day counterparts, in both charm and design.  Nintendo (cleverly) are recycling these games for cheap by way of the Wii’s virtual console.  I think it costs about £5 for a Super NES game, a little more for an N64 title and a little less for NES code.  This isn’t very much compared to a brand-new game because it costs Nintendo very little to adjust the games for use on the Wii.  The price seems to be low enough too to lure away most would-be piraters – indeed, I’m very happy to be able to play these nostalgic games once again legitimately.

The only catch is that your games are tied to the console on which they are downloaded – presumably in a bid to counter fraudulent duplication.  One upshot of this though is that should your Wii be lost or stolen, so will your collection of downloaded games (although actual discs themselves are just as susceptible to plundering, of course – it’s more a case of putting all one’s eggs in one basket).  To their credit, if a Wii is damaged, Nintendo will (on the basis on evidence of ownership) make the owner’s games playable again.  This sort of policy is broadly the same across most digital media outlets, and it is difficult to argue with.

Given the above strategy of chalking up lots of small sales as opposed to fewer big ones, I am happy to see that the cost of downloading films and music is decreasing.  It’s just as well, too: downloaded media is not equivalent to hard copies of the same items. As with the virtual console, you still can’t  re-download a digital item that was lost (for whatever reason) – the onus is on the consumer to make backups.  But, that’s okay – it’s good practice to frequently make extra copies of digital data where possible.

I actually started out this post to make an angry rant about consumer rights and corporate one-sidedness, but actually… actually, things are better.  Much better than they were when digital media was first made available for legitimate download.  The competition from Amazon (say) in the mp3 market has brought cheaper downloaded music to end-users; films, games and books which would otherwise be out of production can once again made available to their audience, for much less money (and physical resources) than it would take to reprint and redistribute them.

I think it would be better for everyone if prices were dropped still more in all of these cases.  Unlike traditional markets in which each item has a significant cost offsetting the total sale price, it costs a digital provider virtually no more to serve ten people than one.  I doubt that revenues would decrease following a steep fall in download charges, as end-users would be getting exponentially better value for money.  I might spend the same amount of money on music as before, but I’d have more music to listen to and recommend to others – all at no extra cost to the distributer.

UPDATE: With the ominous Digital Economy Bill on the horizon, I’d just to say that were media downloads significantly cheaper, people might be a lot more inclined to use them.  A pound is a lot for a song download, and (I imagine) makes piracy a much more attractive alternative; if a song was 10p on the other hand, then there is a product that can compete well with the pirates.

With an illegal song, the quality is never going to be consistent, and there is an ever-present risk of computer viruses (and worse) – 10p would be a small price to pay to consistent quality.  £1 is, for many people, too much (and the same principle can broadly be applied to films and games.)  As stated above, it costs a distributor little more to shift ten songs than just one.

In short – piracy is countered best not through legislation, but through deregulation and more reasonable pricing.

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