If 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.