Category Archives: Entertainment

House of Cards Piracy Shows Why Legal Global Streaming Works

It’s a universal truth that where demand goes unsatisfied, piracy quickly follows. For the creative industries, there are high hopes that an equally predictable trend will unfold: where legal streaming services roll out, piracy quickly tails off.

It’s been a theme that characterized much of February for us, from the news that Norway, where streaming music services dominate, has seen a dramatic reduction in piracy, to the post-Oscars analysis of where Academy Award winning titles are available and how piracy spikes if they’re not.

House of Cards piracy is the latest example to underline this phenomenon, as season 3 of the Netflix original series prompted a surge in social media and viewing activity in markets where the platform is active, and soaring piracy levels in countries where it isn’t.

 

Season 3 was only released last Friday, yet unlicensed viewing in countries around the world already numbers in the six figures, with China heading the illegal access list at more then 60,000 downloads. That doesn’t begin to factor in a number of other methods of finding the program without paying for the privilege, as technology like VPN access helps viewers to bypass geographical restrictions and log in to the same version of Netflix made available to U.S. consumers.

Although there is also illegal access in countries where Netflix does operate successfully, not least the U.S. and United Kingdom, the general consensus is that any market will have some amount of residual piracy.

While that element needs to be tackled with more familiar education and enforcement tactics, promoting legal access channels and penalizing where pirates knowingly disregard them, the most promising new prong in fighting copyright infringement is rolling out legitimate streaming services in markets where they don’t currently operate.

In the case of House of Cards this would of course be Netflix, first and foremost, although it isn’t hard to imagine a scenario in which the company licenses such a popular title to another service if it can’t get into the market itself. China springs to mind in the first instance, given the censorship issues and other red tape for American companies operating in the country, but there are enough other international markets in which Netflix isn’t being compensated at all for its hit production and would surely love to bridge the gap with licensing income.

Continent of Australia from space. Australia i...

Continent of Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile it’s Australia that provides the most immediate case study of how introducing a legal viewing alternative will impact piracy levels. Frequently found atop the illegal viewing figures despite its relatively small consumer base, the country saw House of Cards piracy almost on a par with China.

Here, however, Netflix seems all set to launch this month, giving consumers almost no time to wait for the popular title and everything else that the company’s expansive archives will bring.

If Australians decide that convenience (and, we would hope, copyright) trump the awkward access of covert connections and malware-plagued piracy sites, then piracy levels should decline.  The experiment is ongoing, but the early results are promising that legitimate digital channels can connect viewers around the world to content they love, without having to resort to illicit and unreliable access points to get it.

 

Global Album Release Day Can Align Fans Against Piracy

Just as the music industry offered other creative sectors a glimpse into the future with its all-in approach to streaming media, the announcement of a standard worldwide release day for records is a forward-thinking acknowledgement of today’s digital marketplace.

Friday is the day selected for albums to be made available in any country, although in truth the important element here is less about the day of the week and more about the way releases work.

 

Different release dates around the world leave a space where demand in certain countries goes unfulfilled, even when supply is flowing in others. Pirates need no invitation to quickly step in and fill that void, leaving impatient fans with a moral choice to make. A global release day eliminates the temptation to piracy, while legal streaming services make it easy to access any album that has been officially released around the world.

Although the tradition of “New Music Tuesdays” in the U.S. is rooted in record-buying history, and Monday a major day for music stores in the UK and Europe, the reality is that the vast majority of music is now consumed online. Whether by digital downloads from stores like iTunes and Amazon, or streaming on-demand from the likes of Spotify and Rdio, international demand has been aligned by digital supply.

Fans now know what is out in other markets, and rather than fuel further demand for expensive import CDs as it has in the past, restricting availability across national borders now just pushes fans into the arms of piracy sites.

The move to a global album release day is, hopefully, another step on the road to beating pirates at their own game.

The only reason for a piracy site to exist is to satisfy the demand that legitimate channels have yet to fill. If all music is available online at the same time, easily accessible and synced up across devices, then piracy is pushed to the very margins of music consumption.

When fans get what they want, how they want it, there’s simply no reason to risk the malware and questionable quality that the illegal sites present.

 

Around the World, The Oscars Bring Out Piracy In All Its Forms

The Academy Awards is the crowning jewel in the movie industry’s celebration of creativity; the peak intersection of critical acclaim and mainstream recognition, if the winners haven’t already made waves with the masses.

Every year as the Oscars roll around, however, there’s also the shadow of piracy. As much as a win – or even a nomination – gives each film a boost on the international stage, it also prompts a spike in activity on sites notorious for their copyright infringement.

 

The phenomenon represents all that is wrong with the mentality of piracy, as well as showing copyright infringement in all of its forms around the world.

In the United States we’ve become used to the year’s piracy being communicated in terms of illegal downloads. Popular shows like Game of Thrones and Big Bang Theory inevitably top the list of TV shows, while the year’s biggest box office titles show up with the same reliable frequency. The same contemporary measure and methods apply to The Oscars, where American Sniper headed the list of most downloaded movie in the run up to the awards show. Best Picture winner Birdman can expect to soar up that list in the weeks to come.

Further afield, where connections are less reliable and online access may be limited, more tangible forms of piracy persist. 

A report in the Tico Times explains how Costa Rica sees illegal copies of all the Oscar nominees spread onto the streets and into stores as fever peaks for the awards ceremony. From Birdman to Boyhood, Selma to American Sniper, all of the titles that should be gaining revenue as well as recognition for their varied creative talents are brazenly sold as bootleg DVDs.

This occurs not just on the streets, but in stores alongside other legitimate merchandise, some even with discounts for buying in bulk, making piracy as habitual as running to the grocery store for milk and bread.

Back to the original point, and the study that revealed the Oscars spike in piracy rates confirms just how global is this concern. The research by Irdeto finds Academy Award nominees and winners prompting rises in illegal viewing in all corners of the globe, with the top ten offenders including Brazil,  India, Australia, South Korea and several European nations.

Rory O’Connor, VP of Services at Irdeto confirms: “Our data clearly shows that the rest of the world is paying attention to the Academy Awards and there is significant demand for new movies… leaving room for pirates to take advantage. ”

The challenge for creators and the movie industry is to beat the pirates at their own game, getting out in front of passionate movie fans around the world and reminding them that the best way to support even more creativity in future is to pay for the films they love and the music they enjoy.

Making titles available in good time and educating viewers about release schedules is an important part of this puzzle, as is the ability of viewers to make a moral decision that piracy is an act that only undermines the very thing that draws them to Oscar winners in the first place: a desire to create visual stories that excite the senses and compel repeat viewing.

 

 

Netflix VPN Errors Raise Divisive Issue of “Geo-Dodging”

Local access, global networkIf you subscribe to Netflix, you’re probably used to the monthly search for new and disappearing titles, as well as digging into the depths of its vault for movies and TV shows you may have missed. It can be a somewhat frustrating search, but ultimately rewarding when you uncover a hidden gem to watch or catch a series that’s just about to expire from the archives.

While that’s a common activity within any individual domestic viewing market, imagine multiplying that search by every single country in which the service operates — that’s 40 separate nations, as of September 2014.

Even so, due to varying international release requirements that have existed for some time and extend beyond any one streaming service, that’s exactly what some users choose to do. “Geo-dodging” involves using virtual proxy networks to bypass geographical restrictions – violating the service’s user agreement in the process – and accessing content licensed only for certain markets. Although it’s not considered fair game by streaming services or the studios who fill their viewing vaults, the practice has been a possibility for anyone with a little technical knowhow (and a lot of time to search for the content they want across tens of different viewing markets).

Now, however, Netflix appears to be clamping down on these digital border jumpers.

 

In December many observers noticed a spike in VPN-related errors when accessing the service via these more private connections, prompting speculation that Netflix and its ilk have seen more pressure from studios to enforce the regional release agreements under which they license much of their content. Although Netflix has denied any specific crackdown on the question of geo-dodging viewers,

Being the base of both Netflix and Hollywood, the U.S. vaults of streaming services are of course the prime destination for viewers outside of North America. Each area has its own popular titles that are currently unavailable in another, though, and creators in each original country have a right to control how and when their work comes out around the world.

Geo-dodging through the use of VPN’s is an activity which, while some distance down from illegal file sharing and torrent streaming on the anti-piracy laundry list,  remains a persistent thorn in the side of studios. Their business model and marketing campaigns are based upon carefully crafted release schedules designed to maximize movie-goers and minimize piracy.

Although these can sometimes be turned into lemonade, as with the enforced online release of The Interview over the holidays, all too often unexpected changes can leave studios with a lemon. The pre-release piracy of Expendables 3 last year showed just how much this kind of thing can bite at the box office, and though to a lesser extent, online sales of a title can just as easily be cannibalized in one market by viewers dipping into another area to stream before it is officially licensed.

The legal options for viewers remain extensive and impressive. Throw in a little patience (or a little extra investment to see a theater release, as creators often intended) and we begin to move toward a global release system that balances the needs of both creator and consumer, without grating too much on either party.

As Legal Viewing Options Grow Globally, Excuses for Piracy Recede

Following a study by KMPG earlier this year that showed the vast majority of popular or critically-acclaimed movies are legally available online in the U.S., the same research criteria have been applied across the Atlantic.

The results? Very similar availability and an ever-expanding universe of outstanding entertainment for British viewers, all instantly accessible via legitimate online services.

Here are some of the report’s headlines for the UK market:

  • All of the top 100 movies at the 2012 box office are offered on at least one of the services;
  • 96% of the country’s all time box office hits are offered on at least one of the services;
  • 90% of independent films were available on at least one service;
  • 75% of top UK 100 TV shows were also available on at least one service.

In actual fact many of the numbers above could be higher as the study doesn’t take into account options like time-shifted viewing available from cable providers or similar services that act as content recorders.

All in all, the findings on both sides of the Atlantic mirror one another and encompass a trend that is inevitably going global. Thousands of services are available across Europe and the incentive for the most successful of them to expand into other international markets is clear. Legal options for the most in-demand and culturally valuable entertainment are coming online all the time, neutralizing one of the last lingering excuses for those who typically take it for free.

The hope for creative industries around the world will be that the rising popularity of legal online entertainment, which provide quick, easy access and improve the consumer’s experience compared to illegal options, will persuade those in more notorious markets to move away from piracy.

If the success of legitimate channels of content consumption continues to grow by turning torrents and illegal downloads into real revenue, the investment in that content and those who create it will be all the greater.

 

 

 

No Cold War-esque Quotas for US Movies in Russia

As many feathers as Russian president Vladimir Putin is ruffling around the world at the moment, Hollywood is not among them. On the contrary, the controversial leader is becoming something of a firm friend to the industry.

Following a commitment from Russia to block piracy sites last year,  Putin this week struck down a proposal limiting the number of U.S. movies allowed into the country. Describing filmmakers in the United States as “talented and successful people we can learn from,” Hollywood’s unlikely ally delivered an uncompromising commitment to giving Russian audiences what they want, without limitation.

Unfortunately, getting what they want when they want it is exactly the issue that president Putin must taken up with his domestic audience if his belief in creativity is to be fully realized. 

Russia ranks among the world’s “most notorious markets for piracy,” according to the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) own report. Sites based in the country include VKontakte, a domestic competitor to Facebook, and the less well-known but no less damaging Rapidgator.net, both of which are heavily used to share unlicensed content, including many of the American movies that president Putin so admires.

So while the MPAA will undoubtedly applaud moves that keep popular movies flowing into Russia without restriction, it will simultaneously be urging the country’s lawmakers to focus on protecting the copyright of those films when they arrive. This is no less important to Russian filmmakers who would benefit from greater income and legitimate exposure of their work to an audience at home, which is often the launch pad for international acclaim.

Even so, during a period of history in which Vladimir Putin will almost certainly be cast as the villain, it’s an intriguing plot twist to see him going to bat for one of the Western world’s most successful cultural exports.

As India Replaces Media Minister, Its Courts Lead the Way Against Piracy

We took a look last month at the potential prosperity of international movie markets outside of Hollywood, including a nod to India’s rampant demand for its own films. As in any popular creative market piracy rears its ugly head, requiring authorities to come to the aid of creators.

Well, the high court in Bombay came to exemplify this action last week, following heavy piracy of the film  “Roar: Tigers of the Sundarbans.”


A mixture of known and unidentified offenders, including two cable operators, flagged the film’s popular appeal and flooded the local market with illegal copies of the title, which didn’t go unnoticed by its producer Abis Rizvi. Returning to court with specific cases of infringement, following previous appeals based more on anticipation than actual fact Rizvi found immediate support from authorities.

The high court issued an injunction against all parties involved in illegal distribution of the film, coming just one week after its October 31st release and instructing police to assist the movie makers in shutting down websites and physical “hawkers” of pirated DVD copies. Although it puts the onus back on the filmmakers to work with police to catch offenders, the speed of the support is what marks it out as exemplary action on the court’s behalf.

Arun Jaitley at Indian Economic Summit

Arun Jaitley | Image Credit: World Economic Forum

The activity comes at a time when India has just announced a new Minister for Information & Broadcasting, Arun Jaitley. Jaitley returns to the ministry after fifteen years away and would be well served to follow the example his capital’s high court has set in pursuing piracy with immediate action.

Prevention is preferable to cure, of course, and the latter comes firmly under the court’s remit. The former is best addressed by the politicians who define the laws that the courts must uphold. With a movie business worth almost $2 billion a year to his country, Jaitley will have every reason to steer his peers in the direction of protecting the creative minds that clearly thrive within the Indian film industry.

China Walks the Line Between Celebrity and Censorship

When it comes to controlling content, the Chinese government is more vigilant than most. A familiar frenemy to most major U.S. tech companies, it frequently clashes with the likes of Google to filter our search results and content that it finds objectionable (which doesn’t take much).

While the country undoubtedly wants the connections and revenue that come with attracting such major brands and services to its shores, the commitment to freedom of information that they bring is far less appealing.

China flag in front of aerials

Can China continue to obstruct digital airwaves? | Image Credit: Mark Tollerman

Now it appears that TV and movies will be the next content frontier on which this China censorship battle will be fought.

Through a series of convoluted red tape measures, Chinese internet service providers who plan to air imported shows will be subject to increased scrutiny and editing before popular titles like “The Big Bang Theory” and  “Breaking Bad” can hit China’s screens. For companies who could otherwise immediately serve up these headline shows to an eager domestic audience the delays are likely to grate.

The piracy angle to this story is perhaps the most frustrating, given that availability is such a crucial part of the formula for convincing viewers to use legal services. When shows aren’t available via a legitimate platform, the chances are that they can be accessed through an illegitimate one. In this case everyone except the piracy site loses, as legal services are denied a paying viewer, revenue is lost to the original creator, and even China’s government fails in its mission to censor an imported show. Many titles on piracy sites simply run in their original, unedited form, potentially cutting the government out of the loop entirely.

This comes at a time when China’s curious mix of capitalism-backed Communism has its own media giants extending their reach into Hollywood. Alibaba, for one, is coming off the back of a hugely successful IPO and a strong financial quarter, with a significant part of its plans to capture new users lying in the U.S. creative industries. On the export side, American studios are showing huge interest in further exploration of the Chinese movie-going market, where imported films are already subject to quota yet make up a little less than half of the country’s box office.

With such a rapid acceleration of its entertainment industry on both the import and export front, China’s government is going to have to balance an increasing number of spinning plates as it seeks to censor incoming content, curb piracy that circumvents its efforts, and still exploit the economic value that the creative industries present.

Beyond Hollywood: International Movie Markets Look to Make Their Mark

For most casual fans of film, Hollywood is the first and last location name in movie making. But as tantalizing as Tinseltown is for actors and fans alike, there’s much more to production and many other excellent, if somewhat elusive film releases are made outside of U.S. borders.

Perhaps the best known of these is India’s Bollywood, a prolific section of the country’s movie industry that produces thousands of releases every year and contributes some . The Mumbai-based focus of film contributes several billion dollars to the Indian economy every year and has launched its own megastars, some of whom have crossed over to the market we in the West consider mainstream, such as Anil Kapoor of Slumdog Millionaire fame.

Bollywood Art

Image Credit: Meena Kadri

Where Bollywood is a term generally known by serious film buffs, Nollywood is unlikely to have reached such heights… yet. This week the New York Times name-checked the Nigerian film business of the same name,  citing the thousands of films produced by the country and the gritty, “bare-bones” nature of the industry as a prime attraction for domestic fans and those hardcore fans that the titles reach around the world.

Unfortunately the article also acknowledges a limiting factor all too familiar to global audiences: movie piracy. 

The box office revenues of Nigeria are reigned in, despite the huge level of production and passionate interest in what’s being made, by bootleggers. This illegal activity threatens to cut off the life blood of budding movie industries around the world, as cash is what impresses investors, and investment is what drives early-career filmmakers on to produce bigger and better movies.

Piracy is of course a problem in every country, from ripping off the big money blockbusters of Hollywood and denying them millions of dollars at the box office (see Expendables 3), to callously taking the work of rising talent without license, denying them the funds they need to get going on their next project.

At any level and in any country, widespread copyright infringement is a problem that requires both local and global enforcement in order to create an environment in which new talent can not only germinate, but bloom and grow with the funds that should be due to directors for success in their early work.

Australia’s Foxtel Takes Aim at Pirates

Foxtel Logo

The success of Australian media company Foxtel should not be used as an excuse for piracy, according to its CEO Richard Freudenstein. Speaking at Sydney’s Copyright Forum, Freudenstein contended that the livelihood of professionals in the entertainment industry was being threatened by piracy. “I think there is a real risk that people see this as all about big companies. It’s about writers, it’s about directors it’s about people selling popcorn in movie theatres,” Freudenstein said.

Interestingly, Google’s Australian head of public policy Ishtar Vij responded that the Australian government’s move to crack down on pirates could stifle creativity and place an undue burden on creative professionals. She added, “”Content owners need to be able to control their content online but it can’t be done in a way that compromises the broader ecosystem.” That’s a more assertive position than Google has taken at home in the U.S. Freudenstein responded  to Google, saying, “We’ll have a lot more cats on skateboards and a lot less Game of Thrones,” he said.

The video wars in Australia are set to enter a new stage as Netflix readies itself to enter the market. Just last month Foxtel lowered the price of its basic cable package by half to about A$25. Freudenstein said it was a response to affordability issues. Others contend it was b brushback directed against Netflix. Stay tuned. Things are heating up Down Under.