Many questions in the copyright debate

Global modeSince the pre-Easter news that four big content companies (Mediaworks, TVNZ, Sky and Spark through Lightbox) were threatening legal action against ISPs offering services like GlobalMode, I’ve been mulling on what all the pieces of this puzzle are.

There is of course the immediate legal question offered up by the threatened legal action. Are ISPs aiding and abetting copyright infringement by offering this non-New Zealand face to the public?

There’s a question about exclusivity: should content sales-people be offering, and putting a premium, on so-called “exclusive” license rights for their material when the Internet provides endless ways to work around such rights?

There’s a question about ubiquity: is the NetFlix CEO right when he is quoted saying his biggest wish would be to offer the same set of content everywhere and at the same time? Related: if he got his way, would there be any role left for local content aggregators and providers like our four protagonists?

There’s also a question about public expectations: how do people feel about companies trying to make it a bit harder for them to pay for content they want to watch?

Sometimes there’s a question about confusion: people generally go to offshore services when they can’t get the content they want – or how they want it – locally - how does that behaviour compromise revenue or rights of local providers?

There’s a question about value: where can local content aggregators win and add value in a global market place that sees them outgunned in terms of content purchasing budgets?

I think that last question is the most important one, given how significant these content plays are for the broadcasters and apparently for Spark too. I’ve had quick looks at Lightbox (thanks to a courtesy pre-release trial from Spark) and at the on-demand offerings of the TV broadcasters. The latter in particular don’t always allow people to do the binge-series-watching that seems to be a preferred way of consuming series of TV content these days. With TVNZ on demand, you can often only see one or two episodes.

More broadly, what do local firms have that foreign ones don’t?

Audience knowledge and cultural context would be my starting point. New Zealand-based content aggregators should know Kiwis better than people offshore, and should be able to select content bundles that appeal – and be able to market them – in ways foreign firms can’t match.

Because besides that – what else is there? Locals are never going to be able to afford more content; they are unlikely to be able to use better tech to get the content to screens; it seems unlikely they will be able to offer higher quality of service given foreign providers are getting better at this.

The innovation wars the Internet has sparked are flowing through all sorts of industries. Music and movies felt the brunt ten or fifteen years ago. Nowadays in those industries the platforms are largely global.

I am not a seer or a fortune-teller, but I assume the same forces are pushing TV in the same direction. You can see this when broadcasters offer episodes of shows the “same day” they are broadcast in the USA. But the lure of global brands with walls of content is likely to remain strong if not grow stronger – and as these brands move more and more into the content origination business, one can imagine them growing even more influential.

This of course gives rise to what would be the killer app of the current situation: a way for a user to set up a selection of content they wanted, and that app going and paying the relevant subscription fees to the relevant services to get access to it. If anyone can make this happen, I’ll be signing up in a heartbeat.

I admire and appreciate the efforts and investments of the big four companies who have made these legal threats. I also admire efforts of technologists to do their best to offer Internet services where people can access as much content as possible (while paying for it, which fortunately is the case – this isn’t an issue of illegal downloading).

Mostly, given my job, I admire and appreciate the open Internet that allows all this creative havoc to fly. Not everyone is a winner in the days of change the Internet has unleashed. Nor were they in previous eras of innovation: the mass production of horseshoes faded as the mass production of tyres took over.

The questions remain… and we’ll be part of the debate as it plays out. Whatever happens, if this matter goes to court, the Internet itself isn’t at risk. The ease of consumer access to what content they want might be. There might be implications for the upcoming review of the Copyright Act. There will certainly be conversations to have.

I don’t have answers to all the questions I posed up above, but I do have InternetNZ’s position. We’re here to promote the potential of the Internet. And the potential of the Internet lies in its lack of boundaries. Content is catching up with that reality. People can choose to be on the right side of history or not – in the end, those choices sit with them.

Someone else once said it better than I could, and I paraphrase:

“We welcome change and openness. There is one sign that the four legal actors can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of an open and uncaptureable Internet. John Fellet, Simon Moutter, Kevin Kenrick and Mark Weldon: if you seek innovation, if you seek advancement and benefits for the Kiwi consumers, if you seek to be on the right side of history then stop this silliness. Content deliverers, tear down this wall!”