15 February 2014

Australian Government Signals Stupid Crackdown on Piracy

Stockholm PirateAustralian Attorney-General George Brandis has flagged government plans to crack down on internet piracy, including the possible introduction of laws requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to block websites known to host infringing content and/or a ‘graduated response scheme’ (which I believe is code for the kind of ‘three-strikes’ warning system that has proven essentially useless elsewhere).

Such proposals are, in my view, utterly wrong-headed, and serve only to demonstrate the extent to which the Australian government is beholden to (mostly foreign) content owners, at the expense of (Australian) consumers.

Not having anything much to do with patents, this might seem an unusual topic for this blog.  But there is a significant innovation angle to this story, because the intended purpose of such alleged ‘enhancements’ to copyright enforcement options is to protect out-dated business models employed by content owners and distributors in the face of rampant technological change.  And what consumers really need is not a raft of new ways to be punished for making use of new technologies, but rather the development of new business models that harness the capabilities of those technologies to provide us with greater convenience and choice.

The fact is that the really big content owners and producers, i.e. primarily US studios, and their local distribution arms, do not want their existing business structures to be disrupted by disruptive technologies.  They would much rather persuade governments to introduce new laws to counter the inevitable consequences of their refusal to change.

Australia Leading the World!

It has been frequently reported that Australians are among the world’s most enthusiastic pirates, particularly when it comes to TV series.  Not only did my home country beat the world in illegal downloads of the final episode of Breaking Bad, my home city of Melbourne led the Australian charge (I did not contribute – you may be shocked to learn that I have never seen a single episode of the show).

I firmly believe that this has very little to do with any unique Australian tendency to want to get really good stuff for free.  I think that Australians understand as well as anyone else that if there is something you really like, and you want there to be more of it in future, then the best thing you can do is to support the economics of production by accessing the product legally.  I am pretty sure that Australian fans of Vince Gilligan are not working diligently towards creating a world in which he cannot get finance to bring his creative visions to the screen!

In my opinion, Australians top the lists of online copyright infringers because we are treated with particular contempt by the various companies – studios, distributors and broadcasters – that are supposed to earn their profits by satisfying our desires as consumers.  And we are much worse off in this regard than many of our overseas counterparts, such as in the US.

Take, for example, a show that I am currently quite enjoying, The Blacklist.  Series 1 is broadcast free-to-air in Australia (supported, therefore, by various companies’ advertising dollars).  Next week (19 February, to be exact) episode 12 will air here.  This same episode aired for the first time in the US, on NBC, on 20 January, i.e. almost exactly a month earlier.  Shortly afterwards, were I resident in the US, I could have legally purchased the episode for download from Amazon for US$1.99 (or, for an extra dollar, I could have had it in high definition).  But if my DVR crashes, and fails to record next week’s episode, my only legal option to see it in Australia will be to watch it on the 7Plus catch-up service, during a limited availability period of 14 days.

The Game of Game of Thrones

It could be worse, however – I might have got myself hooked on Game of Thrones.  In Australia, this is broadcast on the Foxtel cable TV channel Showtime, and it was recently announced that Foxtel has tied up an exclusive deal with HBO that will put an end to next-day availability for download via iTunes.

So, suppose I wanted to (legally) watch season 4 of Game of Thrones this year, what would I need to do and pay?  Well, I would need Foxtel, at a $75 up-front cost.  I would then need a subscription package including the ‘premium movies and drama’ option.  And since my current home phone service is not with Telstra, I am not eligible for the ‘minimum’ package prices advertised on the Foxtel site.  So I could either switch my phone provider, and pay a subscription fee of about $75 per month, or stick with my current provider and pay more like $100 per month.

For this money, I would get a whole heap of stuff (that I do not want), in addition to legal access to the one show I wanted to see.  Foxtel is completely open about the fact that its deal with HBO is all about preserving its tired old business model.  Its Director of Television Brian Walsh told blog TV Tonight that ‘[o]ur absolute desire is to increase our Subscriber numbers and exclusively acquiring Game of Thrones is important.’

Expect to see Australia leading the world once again in downloads of Game of Thrones in 2014!

Conclusion – Time to Put Australian Consumers First

So my message to George Brandis and the Australian government is this: stop pandering to international content owners and foreign governments, and start looking after your actual constituents here in Australia!  We should have a decent choice of legal mechanisms to acquire the content we wish to consume, when and where we wish to consume it.  And we should have modern, technology-neutral copyright laws that support business models that better balance the needs of consumers and content-owners.  Only then, if there are still high rates of piracy, will I for one not be criticising any proposed crackdown. 

But until that day comes, the government should stop looking for ways to penalise consumers for trying to circumvent artificial barriers that exist for the sole purpose of protecting the inflated profits of foreign companies.  Especially when we are being told in other contexts all about how we need to reduce our ‘dependence’ on government to prop up our unrealistic expectations.

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