Winter is coming for copyright slumlords

19 June 2012

Did you hear?  Game of Thrones is now the “most illegally copied” television show of the season, and Australians top the list of pirates. The reasons are simple enough - lag times of 2 weeks between episodes being aired in the US and Australia, the inability to purchase individual episodes on iTunes until a year after Season 1 had aired in the States, and the requirements to sign a long term contract for a cable TV package including a bunch of other channels and shows you don’t want.  In other words, it’s perfectly easy to watch it legally as long as you are willing to wait, watch it at an inconvenient time, and be gouged for the privilege. The response of AFACT has been to tell us that it is ‘unreasonable’ to expect to be able to get (paid) access via downloading or streaming at the same time or immediately after it is aired on cable TV.

On the contrary, this is an entirely reasonable expectation.  Hollywood is able to open the same film on hundreds of cinema screens worldwide on the same day, and coordinate it with the accompanying Happy Meal and action figures.  The Australian ABC makes shows immediately available on its hugely popular iView service within hours of them airing on traditional TV.  They happen to be a public broadcaster that doesn’t charge for the service, but there’s obviously no technical reason it can’t be done on a pay-per-view or pay-per-download basis.  Indeed, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott commented in a speech recently

The cost of delivering our streaming services continues to ramp up dramatically. It is a storm driven by increased audience demand: educated consumers, with smarter devices, cheaper broadband with much higher caps – and a desire to watch right now. But delivering services this way is exactly what we must do to be relevant and compelling to our audiences.

Let’s consider that again.  In Mark Scott’s world a “desire to watch right now”, far from being “unreasonable”, is what broadcasters and publishers “must do to be relevant and compelling to our audiences”.

Companies like NAXOS, Spotify, Netflix, Apple and Tor get this.  Spotify and NAXOS don’t think it is “unreasonable” for you to demand your favourite songs streamed to you whenever you want. Netflix thinks it is eminently reasonable that you might want to watch your favourite TV show at 2am, or at 2pm.  Apple’s entire system is designed to enable you to give them your money in exchange for software, video or music as soon as you think of it.  Tor now sell DRM-free ebooks ensuring they can have a direct relationship with their customers and provide them with a device-neutral product.

Traditional broadcasters and publishers want to have their cake and also eat it.  When it suits them they get around the Fair Dealing or Fair Use components of copyright by making use of their works subject to a license agreement.  Thus they have the protections of copyright without the safeguards against unfair restriction our Parliaments or Congress have ensured.  Then they have the gall to call our expectation that we will all be treated equally regardless of geography ‘unreasonable’. They call format-shifting ‘theft’ but freely remove or change ebook files on customer’s ereaders at their own whim. They force those who actually create cultural works to hand over their copyright, but hunt down those who seek to assert their rights to fair use of the work by breaking DRM.  Like the worst monopolist landlords, they first seek to ensure there are no other options, then mercilessly exploit their customers with exorbitant prices and petty rules.

Delays and differentiation in service, special DRM software and registration systems - these barriers are all unnecessary.  So HBO has sold the rights to Game of Thrones to Foxtel in Australia?  Do I care?  TCP/IP works perfectly fine in Australia - why not just take my credit card number and stream it to me or let me download it for $3.49 an episode?  HBO finally did exactly that in Australia for the second season on iTunes  - but still not in HD, only in Australia, and still 2 weeks late.  Given the year-long delay on the first season, its hardly surprising that most people didn’t even bother checking whether it was available in this way.  HBO and others choose to operate in the old analogue context and offer broadcast rights and geographic restrictions.  They choose not to provide an easy way for fans of the show to give their money to HBO.  The choose to have the most pirated show in the world.

The world’s major English language publishers are choosing the same path.  They choose to restrict their ebooks with DRM.  They choose to make it either impossible or extremely difficult for libraries to access their ebooks.  They choose to launch the same book for sale in different countries at different times.  By doing so they are choosing not to provide the service their potential customers want.  They are choosing to treat their customers with disdain.  They are choosing to compete for the prize of ‘most pirated book in the world’.

After making hay in the sunshine of a decades-long summer, the days of limited choice and high ‘friction’ are over.  Winter is coming for Big Copyright, and they know it.  That’s why they are holding secret meetings with the Attorney-General’s Department to try to make pirating more inconvenient. It’s why they have convinced the Department to suppress any record of these meetings. It’s why they have done the same thing at an international level with the IP chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

Librarians should not play along with this.  Eli Neiberger told us earlier this year that our mission should be to ‘fight for the user’.  Fighting for the user doesn’t mean signing petitions pleading with publishers to sell us their ebooks.  It means looking for alternatives and spending your money with companies that do serve your communities needs properly. Show your community how to publish their own ebooks and bypass the publishers.  Show your community how to curate their own newsfeeds using Twitter or Flipboard and cancel your subscriptions to crappy news aggregation databases.  Refuse to subscribe to any service that requires your members to create a new account with the provider or an associated DRM software product. Question whether ALIA should really enshrine support for Copyright in its policy documents. Demand to know why IFLA opposes one of the few systems that could support the creation of cultural works without locking them down.

Winter is coming for the copyright slumlords. Make sure you rug up, and remember whose side you are on.

Discussed by

Copyright Slumlords

Q12: Copyright