Monday, 8 December 2008

Just a Little Bit of History Repeating


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Originally uploaded by reuvenim
Once upon a time, back in 1984, there was a trial.
The movie studios were worried about no one going to see their films again, so they sued Sony for its latest invention – the VCR, a tool allowing people to record off the air material and watch it at their own time.
The USA’s Supreme Court has dealt the studios a blow. In a precedent, it has ruled that people are allowed to use VCRs for the purpose of time shifting, thus allowing the proliferation of VCRs in our homes worldwide. This, in turn, ushered the age of purchasing and renting movies, an age that culminated with the DVD. The movie studios ended up the big winners: Nowadays, they make 6 times more income out of home videos than they do out of cinematic releases; by now they regard the cinematic release as a mere marketing campaign for the ensuing DVD.
You would think the movie studios have learnt something from this case, would you?

Well, I wonder if they did.
Fast forward to modern day Australia, and have yourself a look at the case of the movie studios plus Channel 7 against iiNet, Australia’s third largest ISP. iiNet, the movie studios and their partners allege, is guilty of allowing illegal material to pass through their services.
Before moving on to discussing the sanity of such an accusation, allow me to ask a couple of interesting questions:
1.Why is it that the studios choose to pick on iiNet, the third largest ISP, and not on Telstra or Optus, the really big guys? It is fair to say that so called illegal material passes through them more than it does on iiNet, so you would think they would be targeted instead, would you? Or is it that Telstra and Optus can afford themselves a defense that would make the trial a farce?
2.Why is Channel 7 taking part in the lawsuit? Could it be because iiNet is planning to release it own Tivo like service that will compete for market share with Channel 7’s overpriced Tivo?

Yes, you can say I am questioning the motives involved in this lawsuit.
More importantly, though, let me ask you this: What is the big difference between me watching the latest episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles off a file I have downloaded from the internet and me watching it off the air?
I can think of two differences. The first is that the download bypasses Channel 9, who paid for the series’ rights in Australia, and the second is lack of advertisements in the downloaded version. However, are these reasons good enough to justify a lawsuit that makes as much sense or even less as that archaic lawsuit against the VCR?
Why won’t the movie studios rearrange themselves to a completely new modus of operandi? Why don’t they flood the market with cheap material that can be legally purchased for next to nothing (say, 1 dollar for said episode), thus allowing them to make just as much money as they would anyway from Channel 9? They can throw in some advertisements for me to fast forward through while at it and for them to make some extra bucks of, I don’t mind. And get rid of stupid DRM while at it, please, it only makes the handling of your material so cumbersome people would rush for the superior “illegal” versions.
Yet the studios choose to bang their heads on the wall and file a lawsuit instead. Who are trying to defend, anyway? The way I see it, they are fighting on behalf of nothing more than their current business model. That, and on behalf of some of their distributors (e.g., Channel 9), whose business model will need revamping, too.
Is it worth it all, the legalities and the hassles? I’ll let you decide.

By the way, in case you thought Americans going to court over time shifting is stupidly incarnate, think of Australia: Up until 2006, it was illegal to record stuff on your VCR. The law was never enforced, which pretty much says it all: just as it is today, you cannot prosecute the majority of the population.
Since 2006, though, we can relax: the law allows us to now record stuff for time shifting purposes. However, you are only allowed to watch your recording once. Do not even think of rewinding if you’ve missed out on some of the dialog!

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