2009 has been a truly dark year for the public image of piracy.
And I’m not talking about Somalian pirates, but the issue of digital rights, specifically in entertainment. It’s estimated that piracy and illegal filesharing costs the television, music and film industries £500m a year in lost revenues.
But whereas that story and the more recent imprisonment of Pirate Bay’s founders were knee-jerk events that had us all wildly jabbering / twittering, I feel that we’re now in the midst of a more subtle undercurrent of significant change in the distribution of online music and television, sustained by almost daily reports of possible mergers and deals, new technologies and services, alleged crackdowns and constant shifts of responsibility for monitoring and controlling internet usage.
In 2000 the issue of digital rights was the almost exclusive concern of emancipated geeks interacting and sharing in a space seemingly designed both by and for them; apoplectic heavy metal fans; and a not insignificant number of terribly confused people sat awkwardly in between.
Jump to 2009, and the internet has become for many the first port of call when looking for entertainment. Mobile devices such as the iPhone plug directly into online music stores, and almost everyone has an iPod or other portable media device. Similarly, network improvements and the penetration of broadband has helped BBC’s iPlayer and its competitors to become almost as popular as “traditional” TV.
In other words, the developments in online media distribution have become mainstream concerns.
However, there remains a fundamental conflict between monetising these distribution services and a historic perception of the internet as user controlled, open-source, a community network without restriction. People don’t like paying for stuff online. Although digital platforms account for about 20 per cent of recorded music sales, 95% of all file downloads are estimated to be illegal. If we want to hear a song once, we might YouTube it or call it up on Last FM or Spotify – if we want it on our iPods, the stats say we are most likely to download it illegally.
Similar issues exist for television and film, where downloads and particularly streaming have been giving producers headaches. The most recent example would be the furore over online leaked scenes from X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which appeared several weeks before release.
(Why anyone would want to see this, for free or otherwise, is beyond me, but apparently it was an issue…) The problem is worsened by advertising – films and shows are heavily advertised on the web (i.e. globally) but release dates are staggered around the world and vary hugely. Inevitably fans are going to get impatient, and at present it’s just too easy to access content illegally.
However, things are changing. Responses to infringements are getting ever more serious and, as we have seen this year, it’s no longer empty rhetoric. The French are being typically Gallic about filesharing, just two weeks ago approving the “three strikes” bill.
The controversial bill proposes the creation of a new government agency, which translates rather grandly as “the High Authority of Diffusion of the Art Works and Protection of Rights on the Internet”, which could have the power to disconnect copyright offenders without legal recourse.
In the UK, creative industry groups such as the BPI, the Publisher’s Association and Equity and broadcasters Channel 4, BSkyB and Virgin Media, are all lobbying the government to force Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to police their users. Of course, this is the last thing the ISPs want to hear, and so they in turn are saying it’s the job of the content providers, leading to what John Woodward of the UK Film Council has reportedly described as a damaging “Mexican stand-off”.
To some extent this apparent impasse has already been breached by evolving the distribution channels and therefore providing more choice. Last year a raft of music subscription services, social networking partnerships like MySpace Music and new licensing channels emerged. Each day sees new reports of mergers, integration and innovation - so watch this space.
When it comes to TV, we’re also getting used to on demand programming. At the moment, broadcasters are giving us content for free, over the internet, and it’s brilliant. The BBC are the front-runners, though 4OD also provides a free catch up service on most of its programmes, (and recently, thankfully, opened its doors for Mac users). And if you’re the kind of person that enjoys pouring absinthe in your eyes, there’s the unforgivably awful ITV Player. But here, too, there are revenue-generating changes afoot. Both 4OD and ITV Player have “forced” adverts, and if the troubled broadband platform Project Kangaroo ever gets a buyer (Orange dropped out of talks just yesterday), on demand TV will almost certainly be delivered on a subscription basis.
The BBC are now behind Project Canvas, which plans to allow viewers to watch on demand services and other internet content via traditional TV – i.e. bring on demand away from the PC in the bedroom and back into the living room (although there must be more to it than that, as cable services such as Virgin Media are already offering on demand services including the iPlayer?)
These suspiciously named “projects” are controversial, in a way partly because of their ambition; the aim seems to be to partner with other broadcasters, channels and media companies to develop an apparently essential media platform, which is an inevitably fiddly business. BSkyB have already thrown an anti-competitiveness strop over Kangaroo (which has all but killed it), and last week they accused the BBC Trust of “deficient” consultation over its more recent plans for Canvas.
There’s a more obvious complication for the BBC to grapple with: just where the licence fee fits into the various projects, (iPlayer / Kangaroo / Canvas) is, frankly, anyone’s business.
At this point, It wouldn’t be right to ignore what Bob Geldof thinks about digital TV, so here is what Bob Geldof thinks about digital TV:
"In the age of the internet, the notion of television itself is as archaic as the word wireless - even if that has been reinvented for the digital age.” (Bob Geldof)
To conclude a somewhat wayward post: it seems to me inevitable that our perception of the internet as a distribution channel is set to change over the next couple of years. There will always be infringers pushing their luck, and there will also always be a lot of good stuff available for free.
But we will, I think, also have to get used to the idea of paying money, or suffering adverts, to enjoy premium content on the internet.