The Pirate Bay trial is
over, the defendants are in jail, and copyright is protected forever.
Except, of course, none of
these statements are true. The Pirate Bay trial will go to an appeal court
(possibly more than one), the defendants are free, at least for a few more
months until that trial is over, and copyright is far from protected.
No matter what the outcome
of the Pirate Bay trial, or the sentence, it was never going to have an effect
on intellectual property theft. The Pirate Bay defendants could have been
publicly hanged, drawn and quartered; and still somebody else would have popped
up to replace them. The people behind The Pirate Bay don’t consider
intellectual property theft a crime. To them, and people like them, being able
to take whatever content you like without paying isn’t a crime, it’s a right.
Since the creation of the
Internet content has been free to view. Although some companies, particularly
newspapers, initially tried to sell their content to subscribers, most of those
businesses moved to an advert supported model very quickly, because of
reluctance on the part of readers to pay for information they could get
elsewhere for free.
Similarly, much of the
software that runs the Internet is funded either by advertising or through government
subsidy; and that creates a sense of entitlement, and a reluctance to pay. Even
the most ardent critic of The Pirate Bay would be furious if they were asked to
pay every time they searched Google.
As the downloading and live
streaming of video became viable, with widespread uptake of broadband, that
sense of entitlement Internet users felt was extended to video content, whether
that was an online video made by a fourteen-year-old in his parents garage, or
the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
Even people who would never
dream about buying a pirated DVD have no qualms about watching a streamed
version of a movie that’s been out for a few months; and as long as there are
people wanting to watch that content there will always be people willing to
provide it, legal or otherwise.
In recent years Hollywood
has woken up to the need to provide content itself rather than leave it to the
pirates. Hulu has been a resounding success, reaching a daily average of 0.3% of US internet users* over
the last eighteen months; and with the deal signed by You
Tube to stream films and TV episodes from Sony, MGM and Lionsgate the
number of internet users streaming movies from a legitimate source could
explode. Outside the US online TV is equally popular, with the BBC’s iPlayer service streaming
over 1.3 million videos per day in December 2008.
These deals aren’t perfect.
In most cases the service is supported by advertising, but there has been talk of You
Tube charging for some services, either through one-off payments or through a
subscription service. If a subscription model becomes the norm, then many
people will be driven back to piracy, particularly in the current economic
climate, where entertainment budgets are already squeezed.
There are also holdouts.
Paramount, Disney and Warner Brothers are all still not streaming any movies or
TV shows for free, and even the existing new arrangement with You Tube is
pretty anaemic, with only a few, fairly old movies being streamed.
In addition there is the
issue of users outside the US: the content is barred from view because the
Internet rights to for content in any particular territory are tied to the TV
rights for that territory. Consequently many non-US users are still pirating
shows just to keep pace with their American counterparts.
There are ways, however, of
avoiding these pitfalls.
The first is for all the
studios to truly embrace the Internet. This means streaming everything. The
entire back catalogue. Movies from the turn of the last century all the way to
the most recent DVD releases. TV shows as well. Anything else will leave gaps
in the market, which bootleggers will fill.
Once everything is available
there need to be a number of different ways for users to stream the content.
While many will be happy with interruptions for adverts in exchange for free
viewing, there will be viewers who would be willing to pay to not see those
adverts. It would make sense for studios to allow this. They could even charge
more money for higher quality videos, and could offer both one-off payments to
watch an individual movie, and a monthly subscription service for unlimited
Finally, there’s the issue
of worldwide access to content.
Over the last ten years or
so there has been a slow march towards synchronised cinematic releases. If this
continues it should make simultaneous online releases viable, at least in the
case of most films.
TV programs are a slightly
different case, as they are currently sold around the world based on their
success in the US. Taking that into account, the new model would have to
separate television broadcast rights from Internet broadcast rights in each
territory. This way the Internet broadcast rights could be sold in advance of
the US screening of a show, allowing viewers in the UK, or other English
speaking countries to watch the show at the same time.
In addition to reducing the
need for piracy, this would also generate word of mouth for the show in
question, as well as giving the network with television broadcast rights a far
better idea of how to market the show, based on the demographic categories of
the online users.
The world of home
entertainment is changing. Because of the Internet, and on-demand cable and
satellite services, consumers expect to be able to watch what they want at a
time to suit them, and without having to wait for delivery, or even the full
download, and yet most Hollywood studios are still using distribution networks
that are antiquated at best.
The current distribution
system for home entertainment came about as a reaction to the release of video
cassettes in the late seventies. The way TV shows are sold around the world
hasn’t really changed since the sixties, and both need to be updated to cope
with new technology and with the new expectations consumers have. Internet
piracy may well be the catalyst, but it is far from the only reason for
Hollywood to change.
*0.3% translates as 660,425 users based on 220,141,969 internet users
in the US