Better Than Free

August 10th, 2011 by Dylan Leave a reply »

From tomorrow New Zealanders downloading copyright music and video content over P2P networks could find themselves on the receiving end of enforcement notices from their ISPs and, after three strike, potentially in front of The Copyright Tribunal and looking at a fine of up to $15,000. 

The law hasn’t really changed – what does change is the way enforcement is managed. It has always been illegal to trade in copyright material without the permission of rights holder, and in theory they have always been able pursue people for these actions, but it would have been very difficult and costly. 

Changes to the enforcement of copyright in this respect have been criticised as protecting an outdated business model, which I’d agree with. In the late 90s and early 2000s the music industry was facing massive issues with illegal file trading, they tried all sorts of legal threats and manged to shut down some distribution systems but in the end the thing that made the biggest dent on illegal music sharing was the arrival of “better than free” models – iTunes and other similar businesses. They provided what people wanted – easy access to file-based music delivery – at a price that was low enough to make it less trouble that piracy. The model is broadly know as Better Than Free. Not only have those options seriously lowered the amount of music piracy online but they’ve provided massive new income streams for the music industry.

Now, with faster internet connections readily available, it’s the film and television industries that see the biggest threat from illegal P2P trading. In New Zealand we have no Better Than Free options for television, and very few for movies (none that are generally available to all users). In the US this market is increasingly drastically with iTunes providing an extensive catalogue of movies and TV shows, Hulu providing access to most network TV shows and NetFlix offering a huge range of TV and film. 

Breaking it down there are broadly two categories of video media to consider (and two sub-categories in each). There is Television and Movies as the primary content, and within each there is current and archival content. Current material is stuff that is offered in a timely fashion. It would be films that are in current release (most likely in the “home video” stage of release, rather than cinematic) and television shows that have just had their first broadcast. Archival material is obviously older stuff – films from years past, and whole series-lots of TV as is often available on DVD now.

There should be no reason that films couldn’t be made available in New Zealand. Release dates are increasingly global now, so making online purchase available on the same timeframe as DVD release should not present problems.

But television is a huge problem. One of the most-pirated TV shows in the recent past was Lost it was a show that attacted a lot of viewer discussion online and the internet in inherantly global. Fans of the show were effectively unable to visit fan sites for fear of major spoilers if they were waiting for local broadcast – so many of the show’s biggest fans were actually downloading the show because of the show’s success. 

Unfortunately the business of television effectively nixes any hope of online sales of television shows in time with their US broadcast. Broadcasters make a lot of money from international sales to other broadcasters – those broadcasters will typically require regional exclusivity and obviously will be less interested in buying a series if that show would be available over the internet to viewers before the local broadcaster was able to screen it. 

So why not just screen it earlier? Within a day or two of the US broadcast perhaps? NZ broadcasters have certainly tried, but the US TV schedules complicate it. US shows will often take a couple of hiatuses during a season during which time there are no new episodes screened. During that time those episodes are also unavailable to other broadcasters – so NZ broadcasters would then be forced to follow these US hiatus breaks. Instead they often delay the start of a series to cover these breaks, so that by the end of the series they are in step with US broadcasts. 

Because NZ broadcasters can’t screen shows in time with the US, those shows aren’t going to be available in NZ in time with the US. Making them available online (through services like Hulu, Netflix and iTunes) would seriously impact their value to NZ broadcasters.

Until television isn’t the primary market for this content it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a major Better Than Free offering for television in New Zealand.