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Black markets in entertainment

Trying to burn a couple of movies to DVD today took me back to the bad old days of physical media and set me to thinking about the inadequacies of the entertainment industry.

It’s extraordinary to think that the best tools for distributing media online are almost all illegal. I mostly want to watch British and US television and movies, but do not live in either country. There are few legal options available to me — beyond waiting for them to air on local TV or going to the cinema.

I pay for the full local cable package and do go to the cinema, but there are lots of shows and movies that never make it here — anything that’s not a reality show or Hollywood blockbuster, basically. I would happily pay to download or stream such stuff, but international rights issues mean there are no legal ways to do this.

For example, the BBC sells Top Gear to local TV stations around the world, which is presumably why it can’t give it away online by opening its iPlayer to international viewers. You can’t even pay a licence fee to access iPlayer, yet by the time Top Gear (or any other show) makes it to local TV it’s usually out of date. Watching international shows on local cable or TV is like living in the past.

But at least Top Gear’s kind of available. The Daily Show isn’t sold around the world, but you still can’t watch it online in most countries outside the US. I have no idea why. Perhaps they’re trying to sell it to the Nigerians.

At the same time, many Western TV stations make it incredibly simple to access their content from anywhere in the world. It costs about $5 a month for a VPN, which are very common in countries such as China due to the government’s online restrictions.

In other words, many Chinese people may not even know that they’re not supposed to watch The Daily Show. They have a US VPN running as a matter of course to evade Chinese censorship and surf the web without ever knowing which sites are arbitrarily restricted (either by their oppressive government or by international rights owners).

The reality seems to be that VPNs are tolerated — a huge chunk of Chinese web traffic would disappear without them — but it would be far more convenient if such sites could be accessed on a more reliable local connection. After all, it’s simply not true to say that the BBC iPlayer is not available outside the UK, so why the pretence?

Services such as Netflix and iTunes are also not available in many countries outside the US. Even where they’re available, they have many of the same restrictions as local stores — limited availability and late releases — as well as generally crappy service.

However, there’s a completely different world available outside the mainstream market, for those who are willing to skirt the law by downloading stuff from newsgroups or torrent sites. These services cost money, but are far quicker and more reliable than anything available commercially — even in the US.

A decent internet connection to a usenet server can download a good quality movie file in a couple of minutes. And software such as SickBeard and CouchPotato can automate downloading of any TV series or movie, while home theatre software like Plex can deliver this content to all the TVs in your house — adding all the artwork and programme info, making it a beautiful solution that offers far beyond what is available locally (and legally).

Some of this stuff costs money and some doesn’t, but the interesting thing is that it’s all built by end users. There are mobile apps that let you use your tablet or smartphone as a remote control, or even for accessing your media library. It can also extend your media server out into the real world, so you can watch the news while sitting on the bus.

Why isn’t this available legitimately?

To me, the black market in entertainment is an entrepreneurial response to an inept industry that has failed to provide a service that its customers want. Or, in other words, intellectual property restrictions seem to have forced innovation underground — which is surely the opposite of what’s supposed to happen.

The internet has made it incredibly cheap and easy to distribute media, but the mainstream industry has spent the past decade clinging to an ancient business model that offers dwindling profits and fails even to compete with the distribution model created by teenagers in their bedrooms. Fail!

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