Vince Gilligan Thinks Piracy Helped Breaking Bad, Turns Out He Might Be Right

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Vince Gilligan, the genius/ creator/ writer/ director/ dark wizard behind Breaking Bad said this in an interview with the BBC last week:

If I’m being honest I see that the illegal downloading led to a lot of people watching the series, becoming aware of the series who otherwise would not have been... I see that in some ways illegal downloading has helped us, certainly in terms of brand awareness, so that’s a good side.

At first I met this statement with a heavy dose of skepticism. It's not exactly like Breaking Bad went unnoticed for the last six years... it was a monstrous hit, critically and commercially. A cultural touchstone, it's repeatedly mentioned in the same breath as The Wire and The Sopranos as one of the greatest modern television shows of all time. Whatever awareness could be raised by illegal downloads surely pales in comparison to the massive word of mouth and AMC's multi-media marketing push.

But instead of writing another anti-piracy screed like I did last year, I decided to do some research. And against the odds (and my own prejudices), I discovered that Gilligan may in fact be right. Two years ago, the Swiss government commissioned a study measuring the effect of copyright-infringing downloading. The result? Piracy actually does help copyright holders (take that Congress)! The study, released by the European Commission Joint Research Centre, found that users who download content illegally are actually 2% more likely to pay for content because the money they save on illegal downloads ends up getting spent on other content. Additionally, they often use the illegal downloads to sample material before they buy, helping to spread the word about lesser-known artists in the process. According to the researchers:

It seems that the majority of the music that is consumed illegally by the individuals in our sample would not have been purchased if illegal downloading websites were not available to them. The complementarity effect of online streaming is found to be somewhat larger, suggesting a stimulating effect of this activity on the sales of digital music.

It's worth pointing out several caveats: (1) this study is considered highly controversial in a lot of circles, (2) the focus of the study was on music downloads and did not extend to other digital content, and (3) all of the subjects in the study were Swiss citizens who are generally WAY more law abiding than Americans.

Even still, it's a tempting theory. While I'm not convinced illegal downloads could raise much awareness for a show with the brand recognition Breaking Bad has, you can see where this might benefit artists who don't have the reach or cultural cache that Gilligan commands. After all, with increased awareness comes greater financial success.

But that doesn't mean Gilligan approves of piracy:

The downside is that a lot of folks who worked on the show would’ve made more money, myself included. But you know, like with most things, there’s two sides to the coin. We all need to eat, we all need to get paid, and I get paid very well, I can’t complain.

Which is exactly why pirating content is not something I can ever really support. Sure, Gilligan and stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are making bank no matter how often the show is stolen (the finale was illegally torrented half a million times), but most of the people who worked on that show aren't making Cranston-money. They're working stiffs like you and me. Money not spent on a show they worked hard on is money they don't get to see. And most artists don't ever get to work on something as high profile as Breaking Bad, so they'll feel that loss all the more.

Here's what I wrote last year on this topic and even in light of the Swiss study, I stand by these words:

[W]hen you legitimately purchase copies of movies and music, you’re telling the artist that you support her. You put her in a place financially where she can continue generating the stuff you love.  When you steal a movie or piece of music, you’re telling the artist that you don’t care if she can make a living and you’re threatening her ability to continue generating that work.  Help me keep artists working and put a stop to the torrenting.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA