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Geo-dodging Thrusts VPNs Into the Global Piracy Debate

Earlier this year we looked at the growing trend of geo-dodging, a process whereby a user in one country can use a server in another country to access content with geographical release restrictions.

The act uses virtual private network (VPN) providers to bypass the online footprint that would otherwise flag their general location and raise the access limitations requested by rights holders.

 

Up to now, geo-dodging has been a secondary concern in the fight against piracy. Now, though, we see cases in New Zealand of television companies threatening to sue VPN services, bringing the trend to the front of technology and intellectual property headlines. Four of New Zealand’s most prominent media companies, SKY, TVNZ, Lightbox and MediaWorks, have joined together to deliver warning letters to VPNs and the internet service providers (ISPs) who enable their user activity.

While geo-dodging has frustrated companies like Netflix, which is known around the world but not available in all major markets, the greater focus has been on fighting direct piracy activity, such as unlicensed file-sharing, torrents and pre-release leaks.

Users getting around geographical content restrictions fell further down the list for two reasons: 1) the technology to accomplish geo-dodging was either not widely available to, or understood by, a majority of users, and 2) often it involves a paying subscriber in one country, so at least there is a sense that content is paid for, even if it isn’t authorized.

In other cases, such as US residents accessing the BBC’s UK-based iPlayer service, the issue is further blurred by the fact that the state broadcaster does not directly charge for its platform, though British tax payers do fund the organization as a whole. At its most basic, though, viewers are accessing content that wasn’t intended for their market, wrenching control from rights holders, and therein lies the problem.

As VPN apps become more common, so geo-dodging on legitimate content platform becomes more of an issue for anyone hoping to license their content to others.

As this practice grows into the public consciousness, it comes back to the very simple concept that content creators and rights holders have the right to choose where and when that content appears. The fundamentals of the licensing system – the market place through which creators can set a value for their content and allow others to use it based on demand, or simply artistic vision –  require that restrictions are respected by broadcasters, intermediaries, and viewers alike.

Though broadcasters and legitimate intermediaries tend to respect those restrictions and, indeed, pay a premium when they want to remove them, piracy facilitators and viewers . VPNs will have to decide which side of the fence they’re on, and how long they can play the privacy card before the weight of intellectual property law gives them a more serious problem to deal with.