Piracy or innovation?

As I prepared to travel to Las Vegas for my 30th consecutive NAB, it occurred to me that this might be a good time to test the waters and download a few movies to watch during the long flights from Florida to Vegas and back. After all, I have a MacBook Pro and an iPhone, so why not give the new iTunes movie rental service a spin? The MacBook Pro has a near-HD resolution screen. I figured, with a little bit of luck, I might actually be able to open it up on the plane. If, however, the passenger in the seat in front of me rendered it useless, the iPhone provided a fallback solution.

When I went to the iTunes store online, I decided to rent a movie and buy one so I could compare the experience. I was a bit apprehensive about the short viewing window for rentals. You have 30 days to begin watching the movie, but once you start watching, you have 24 hours, then — poof — it's gone. This may be the least friendly digital rights management (DRM) scheme that Apple has adopted in its efforts to get and keep the iTunes store stocked with movies, TV shows and music from the media conglomerates.

It took about four hours to download two movies (each about 1.2GB) using the relatively slow 1.5Mb/s DSL connection at my home. While in Las Vegas, I downloaded another rented movie via a much faster cable modem. That took less than an hour.

Thanks to the use of H.264 compression, the image quality was as good as any SD DVD I have purchased, at about one-quarter the file size — not good news for the folks who make shiny discs. Even worse for DVD makers — but better for me — the movies still look great when I hook the MacBook Pro up to my 50in HDTV via a DVI cable. It may not be Blu-ray, but I'm not complaining.

Overall, it was a very satisfying experience, and there were no seat back problems. I did put one movie on the iPhone. It's like watching an old 19in TV vs. my big screen HDTV.

I was satisfied, except for one thing. Each time I would launch a rented movie, a window would pop up warning me that my 24-hour viewing window was ticking away and would soon expire. Thanks, Hollywood. This, together with some of the bizarre story content in the movies I rented, served as a reminder of why I don't spend much time or money watching the content produced by the media conglomerates.

Boom town or ghost town?

Apparently, I'm not alone. The TV broadcast industry just experienced the worst season in recent memory, in part because of the writers' strike and in part because there's a world of new alternatives out there vying for eyeballs.

At times the NAB show floor looked like an Old West ghost town, despite the fact that business on The Strip was booming. New hotels and condos are popping up everywhere, and let's just say that a trip to Vegas is not cheap — nothing like it was a few decades ago when I started to attend NAB.

Based on what I heard at several NAB keynotes and other sessions, I can only conclude that the wheels are starting to come off the NAB bandwagon. It was hard to find a broadcaster among the 100,000-plus people that the NAB told us were preregistered for the show. Avid and Apple were nowhere to be found. It would have been downright embarrassing were it not for increased international attendance, thanks to the value of the dollar, which is plunging as if to emulate TV ratings.

It makes one wonder why the media conglomerates treat consumers like common thieves, as they attempt to stay one step ahead of the pirates with ever more complex and onerous DRM schemes.

Didn't Apple prove that people will buy music if it is priced fairly and is easy to use on new generations of media players and smart phones? Maybe they should put up some golden arches at the entrance to the Apple campus in Cupertino that say, “Over Four Billion Sold.”

Last year, Steve Jobs wrote a missive titled “Thoughts on Music,” asking the record labels to drop DRM for online music downloads. (See “Web links.”) Jobs noted that the industry sells unprotected audio CDs, which account for the vast majority of music stored on iPods; so why put DRM on downloads? Apple did convince one label to drop DRM, but the rest decided that Apple has too much power over distribution. So they offered DRM-free music to Apple's competitors.

The pirate's dilemma

Matt Mason began his career as a pirate radio and club DJ in London. Recently he published a book, “The Pirate's Dilemma: How Youth Culture is Reinventing Capitalism.” (For more, see “Web links.”) Mason contends that American cinema and cable television were founded as outlaw institutions. (There's a reason that Hollywood flourished as far away from D.C. and New York as it could get.) In his book, he notes, “During the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution, the Founding Fathers pursued a policy of counterfeiting European inventions, ignoring global patents, and stealing intellectual property wholesale.” He goes on to say that Americans were so known for piracy that they were eventually branded Yankees, from the Dutch “Janke,” slang for a pirate.

The heart of Mason's argument goes like this: “Piracy transforms the markets it operates in, changing the way distribution works and forcing companies to be more competitive and innovative. Pirates don't just defend the public domain from corporate control; they also force big business and government to deliver what we want, when we want it.”

I'll go a step further and suggest that sharing (not piracy) is the most powerful promotional tool available to the media conglomerates. Where would the music industry be today were it not for radio? Radio became the promotional engine for the industry — payola and all. Now the music industry wants radio stations to pay license fees for every song they play, in addition to the annual ASCAP/BMI licenses they have paid for years.

The cable industry bypassed the stranglehold the TV networks had on viewers. Now we pay monthly subscriber fees for free broadcast TV that is carried on cable and DBS systems. Is this not another form of DRM, imposed by the cozy relationship of broadcasters and the government that regulates them?

The U.S. Constitution directed Congress to create patents and copyrights — not as a way to protect intellectual property, but rather to encourage its rapid proliferation into the public commons. For more than a century, the length of copyright protection for authors was 14 years. After that period, the author (if still living) could request a 14-year extension. In the 20th century, the length of protection for copyrights was extended seven times. It is now 70 years after the death of the author.

The tight coupling between the media moguls and the politicians has created an environment where piracy is the most effective tool for consumers to fight back. Mason concludes, “For the last sixty years, capitalism has run a pretty tight ship in the West. But in increasing numbers, pirates are hacking into the hull, and holes are starting to appear. Privately owned property, ideas, and privileges are leaking out into the public domain beyond anyone's control.”

I can't find much to disagree with, except that capitalism is not the culprit. It is the subversion of free markets through political gerrymandering that has caused this mess.

A Blu-ray of hope?

Clearly the big news from NAB is that HDTV is a reality for video producers at all levels, from wedding videographers to the networks. There was much speculation heading into the 2008 NAB Show that Blu-ray was going to be a newsmaker. With the demise of HD DVD, the Blu-ray faithful expected major announcements about new authoring tools and an elevated level of excitement about using shiny discs to distribute HDTV. However, Blu-ray did not generate much excitement. There are two reasons why:

  • The highly complex DRM schemes for the format are a barrier to adoption. And the licensing fees to use the DRM systems make Blu-ray distribution a non-starter for independent producers.
  • The HD disc wars were a holding action that kept the market confused long enough for Internet downloads to become a viable option to shiny discs.

The movies I downloaded from iTunes were affordable and convenient. For a dollar more, I could have rented a 4GB HD version that could easily fit on an existing 4.7GB red laser disc. Considering the price of gas, going to Blockbuster to rent or Wal-Mart to buy content is growing less compelling by the day.

Now if Apple could just convince Hollywood to get rid of that ridiculous 24-hour DRM clock.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs.

Web links

Send questions and comments to:craig.birkmaier@penton.com