Breaking the law, breaking the law

I’ve been away for a few days, and in typical scatterbrained style forgot to set the video to record a programme I really, really wanted to see – so on my return I downloaded it from Bittorrent. That makes me a lawbreaker, but I’m not entirely sure why.

Let me rephrase that. I do understand why – copyright law – but I think the law is wrong. Had I remembered to set the video, I’d have recorded a programme that’s broadcast for free over the airwaves and watched it at a time that suited me; I’d also have skipped through the adverts. That’s perfectly legal. But because I downloaded it from Bittorrent so that I could watch it at a time that suited me, I’ve broken the law. What’s the difference? I haven’t deprived the broadcaster of any revenue, and I haven’t paid anyone for the download; while there’s an argument that free programming has an implied contract of “you get the programme for free if you watch the ads” I’d skip the ads whether the programme was on videotape or on my Mac’s hard disk.

The problem is that technology is accelerating but copyright owners’ attitudes remain rooted in the old way of doing things. It’s a problem that becomes more apparent when you consider my favourite TV programme, the US cop show NYPD Blue. Although Channel 4 has the rights to the programme it’s several years behind the US and doesn’t seem particularly keen to broadcast the remaining three series; the first two series (of 12) are available on DVD but the release of series 3 on DVD has been postponed indefinitely due to lack of demand. So the programme exists, but it’s unlikely to be broadcast here for a while (if at all), and it’s unlikely to appear on DVD.

Inevitably, the episodes Channel 4 doesn’t seem too keen to broadcast are available in their entirety, for free, on Bittorrent. So far I haven’t downloaded them, but the temptation is hard to resist. It is, of course, illegal – but if I download the episodes, who exactly am I hurting? The programme-makers have been paid, so I’m not depriving them of revenue; Fox, the network that owns the programme, isn’t going to release them on DVD as doing so isn’t viable; Channel 4 isn’t broadcasting the programmes, so I’m not depriving them of ad revenue… to my mind, while downloading the programmes is indeed illegal, it’s a victimless crime.

Rather than seeing such downloading as a problem, copyright owners should see it as an opportunity. The internet makes it possible to narrowcast rather than broadcast, so for example it would be cheap and easy to provide every episode of NYPD Blue ever recorded for download in exchange for a small fee. The copyright owner then makes money from something that otherwise would be sitting in a vault, gathering dust. Or it could be even simpler: lobby for some kind of flat tax on broadband connections and let the Bittorrent users swap to their heart’s content, with a royalty system to ensure that creators get paid for what gets swapped. That way the copyright owners make money without any expense whatsoever: the Bittorrent users provide the bandwidth and hosting, reducing the cost per download to zero. That would make the swapping of TV programmes a revenue stream rather than a threat.

Update, 18 February

Media Guardian covers a report about the epidemic of illegal TV downloading in the UK (free registration required). According to the firm behind the report, Envision:

“If TV companies were to offer episodes for download at a small cost at the same time as they air offline they could generate revenue in the same way that Apple’s iTunes does.”

8 thoughts on “Breaking the law, breaking the law

  1. Ronnie says:

    Interesting post Gary. I think I’m in agreement with you. With regards to “who exactly am I hurting?” bit though, I think it’s quite a non-tangible fear on the part of the television channels.

    For instance, Channel 5 have just paid out X amount of money for Fox’s newest sitcom, Friends spinoff, ‘Joey’. No doubt they sold a serious amount of advertising space based on the inevitably high number of viewers likely to watch.

    If however, Bittorrent had released figures on the week that Channel 5 were selling ad space, saying that Joey was the most downloaded tv show in British internet history (or other such grandiosity) then I’m sure they wouldn’t have made as much money from advertisers.

    This is all purely hypothetical though. Just thought I’d throw it in there…

    :-)

  2. Gary says:

    Yeah, I agree with you about the ad space thing. But I think the advertising model is heading for disaster anyway, thanks to things such as digital video recorders and so on.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the networks have two choices: either embrace the technology now and find a way to make it work, or let the technology kill their business. So for example, would I bother with dodgy downloads if the networks offered PC-quality downloads on their sites (or via torrents) a day or two after broadcast? Nope, even if they included ad breaks or asked me to watch an ad before downloading. I’m fine with that. But if it goes on bittorrent from a rip, then it’s ad-free, data-free… the networks don’t derive any benefit from it at all.

    Does that make sense? I’m having a bad day and my brain’s a bit fried…

  3. Russ says:

    The owner of the UK rights is Channel 4. You are depriving them of revenue. Sure when it’s a single individual the pain is almost unnoticeable. However when it’s 5% of your viewing figures then it costs you money, and out of small acorns giant oaks do grow.

    To be honest I think the world of paying for your digital content is a healthier model than the “what you don’t know won’t harm you” model of internet “rights”.

    However I think that Microsoft is too draconian in it’s rights. The video market will follow the music market and a system like Apple Fairplay for Video is fair and reasonable. What do you think those Mac Minis are for? Small people?

    Love,
    Russ

  4. Gary says:

    Hi Russ. I agree to a point, and that point is where stuff is sitting in a vault gathering dust while it’s freely available online. So for example in the case of NYPD Blue, Channel 4 sat on it for two years without broadcasting anything; it’s been a year since the last series and there’s no indication that they have any plans to broadcast it. Of course, that doesn’t justify piracy, but as we’ve seen with music if people can’t get what they want legally, they’ll get it illegally.

    Here’s one: my “forgot to video/download from bittorrent” thing. Am I depriving Channel 4 of revenue by doing that?

    > To be honest I think the world of paying for your digital content is a healthier model than the “what you don’t know won’t harm you” model of internet “rights”.

    I agree entirely, although I don’t trust the organisations setting the prices. Or rights.

    > However I think that Microsoft is too draconian in it’s rights.

    Ahh, you’ve wandered into a pet subject of mine :-) That’s a common misconception, but the rights aren’t decided by Microsoft; they’re decided by the copyright owners. It’s quite possible to make WMA files much more flexible (in DRM terms) than they are at the moment, but the various retailers can’t do that without the record industry’s (or film industry’s) go-ahead.

    To an extent there’s a problem with inertia here, based on the initial lets-not-take-risks approach of the music sellers: because all the various Windows-powered retailers have the same restrictions (more or less), any one retailer that wants to offer more generous terms is on a hiding to nothing. “Why should we give you more generous rights when all your competitors are quite happy?”

    Apple is in a slightly different position because for now, it’s the Woolworth’s of digital music: if labels want to sell lots of downloads, they need to meet Apple half-way.

    > What do you think those Mac Minis are for? Small people?

    Heh. Well I think for now it’s an attempt to revisit the success of the original iMac, but a breakout box for A/V that turns the mini into a media center does seem like a no-brainer to me. I’d be surprised if Apple isn’t watching Microsoft’s Media Centers carefully – after a few false starts I reckon MS has got it right this time, but the killer is the cost of the hardware. I’ve got a media center sitting next to me at the moment and I think it’s a fantastic bit of kit, but the killer is that at £1,300 I wouldn’t buy it. If Apple can solve that issue and turn the Mini into a tip-top living room PC, it’s won a watch.

  5. Russ says:

    Hi Gary,

    I’d be interested to know how the discussions between apple/labels and ms/labels acually went.

    Was it: here’s Fairplay sign up or don’t get sales. Or here’s what we think Fairplay should be like.

    I suspect MS tried to out do the labels at their own restrictive games.

    I hate WMA DRM as I now own a number of songs that have been transfered to my portable device too many times. I also own one track that I bought off MSN Music last week, The Skids “Into the Valley” which refuses to transfer although I dunno why. In short WMA DRM stinks and I suspect conspiracy. Was Bill Gates the second gunman on the grassy knoll?

    [quote]
    Here’s one: my “forgot to video/download from bittorrent” thing. Am I depriving Channel 4 of revenue by doing that?
    [/quote]

    If you own a time machine and are just too tight on the petrol then yeah! Hmm s’ppose not. It’s a tricky one, your arguement is similar to the one for abandonware. I suppose as long as no one complains there’s no offence caused :-)

  6. Gary says:

    > Was it: here’s Fairplay sign up or don’t get sales. Or here’s what we think Fairplay should be like.

    I honestly don’t know, but I think it’s interesting that Apple didn’t start reducing the DRM restrictions until it was selling shedloads of tracks. To me, that looks like Apple being able to bend the labels’ attitude through sheer market power.

    > I’d be interested to know how the discussions between apple/labels and ms/labels acually went.

    Me too. But I think it’s worth noting that the first firms to go the WMA DRM route were Pressplay and Musicnet (pressplay went on to become napster), both of which were label efforts rather than independent retailers. They pretty much set the tone for DRM restrictions, which everybody else followed. Things have improved a bit, but not dramatically.

    Certainly speaking to various MP3-type sites off the record, i’ve been left with the distinct impression that they’d all love to offer less restricted or even DRM-free downloads, but the labels won’t stand for it.

  7. Ronnie says:

    From the BBC’s Magazine Monitor:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4325223.stm

    “If I miss a programme on BBC One or Two, and I then download it from the internet, exactly what copyright law have I broken? It would be wrong to suggest that I’d received goods that I hadn’t paid for, as I own both a TV and a TV licence. What if I downloaded the new Doctor Who episode because I knew I was going to be away on holiday, and I couldn’t record it as retailers have stopped selling VCRs? I’ve still paid my money for the show, why can’t I download it?”
    Andy,
    Manchester

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *