Content Restrictions Are A Losing Battle For Consumers

By @zachfeldman
Written on Jan 10, 2016

I’m sitting here at 10,000 feet on my flight from Marrakech to Amsterdam, after a pretty great few days exploring Moroccan culture in the city and in the Atlas Mountains, to the best of my ability. You can see more of that on my Instagram if you’re curious.

I was pretty excited to watch some of the movies that I downloaded from iTunes before the trip. This has been an unfortunate ritual each time I’ve traveled recently. Taking into account connectivity restrictions on my Netflix, Amazon Prime video, and Hulu accounts and content licensing restrictions on at least Hulu while abroad it’s necessary to purchase some additional content on iTunes before I go on a long trip. I have to think of this the night or day before the trip and make sure that I do it, or else I’ll be stuck with nothing to watch on my driveless Macbook. Frantically downloading from iTunes on crappy airport WiFi is a great way to only get half of what you downloaded and not be able to watch any of it. Plus, who would want to bring DVDs or Blu-rays with them on a long trip anyway? Talk about a waste of space in an age with fast 512GB Solid-State Drives.

Anyway, back to my flight. We get up to the aforementioned crusing altitude and I open up iTunes in anticipation of watching the Amy Winehouse biopic, Amy, that I’ve heard good reviews of. This is the screen that I’ve been presented with:

iTunes Screen

My movies! The movies that I spent countless hours waiting to be download, leaving my laptop propped open the night before my flight, checking on it a few times before I went to sleep, checking to be sure they were there in the morning. After all the times I checked to be sure they were there before I left for the airport, all of them were gone.

I had spent 5 days in Marrakech, mostly connecting to the web through tethering on a Maroc Telecom SIM card and a few random WiFi networks. I had iTunes up during one of these sessions and might have seen an alert come up about movies downloading, that I definitely ignored, thinking, “my movies are already downloaded so no worries there”. But I can assure you, dear reader, that I never purposefully went in to my library and deleted these already downloaded, ready to watch, rented and paid for films.

The Consumer has Lost Control of Their Media

As much as I hate digital media living on disks or tapes, it still meant control of the purchased media for the end user. When the user purchased the media, they were given the right to then sell that media to someone else (see the “First Sale Doctrine”, I believe it’s called that but I’m on a plane right now with no internet to research this article so maybe I’m wrong). They certainly couldn’t have a movie they’d rented in a physical format literally yanked from them when they entered a different country. Yet this is exactly what Apple and iTunes have seemingly done. Of course I’ll be sending them an angry e-mail and with luck, I should be getting my money back. But that doesn’t get back the wasted 3.5 hour flight.

I mean, at least I got to write this article and read some more of my book about Russia’s ridiculous war on the Internet, but I was totally geared up to watch the sad downfall of the “You Know I’m No Good” crooner that we all know is, so good.

A Solution: Central Licensing Authority, Upgrades Instead of Replacements

Here’s something the big movie studios and the MPAA definitely don’t want: a central licensing authority that issues consumers a license for their media upon purchase, with the ability to use the media wherever and whenever they’d please. Or maybe just for a specified rental period, regardless of the platform the media is rented from. Perhaps they wouldn’t have the right to screen the media to a wide audience either, but what about a license for unlimited or limited personal use? Why isn’t there yet a central platform for issuing these media licenses instead of an array of deals between movie studios and huge companies with an army of lawyers standing in the way of the consumers’ rights?

Some companies have tried to put something like this into plcae. For example, we’ve seen Ultraviolet as a suite of technologies that should allow consumers to play their media on any device once they purchase it once. But this technology definitely hasn’t reached wide adoption and from what I’ve seen, never really will. Plus I believe it’s controlled by one company and other companies will not jump on that bandwagon any time soon.

As a consumer, I wish I had the right to purchase a form of media once in a specific format and own it for life. When a new format comes out, say the transformation from 1080p to 4K, I should be able to pay a nominal upgrade cost to take my media to the next level, maybe 10% or 20% of what I originally paid.

This would incentivize consumers to purchase media now rather than wait until it comes out in the best format for their new TVs or media players, accelerating the development and adoption of new media formats. It seems that from this point forward, all new media formats will be digital anyway, so a program like this makes a lot of sense to me.

The original 6 Star Wars movies are currently available for $80+ on streaming platforms for purchase in 1080p HD, which I will not do because I own a 4K TV. I would be extremely surprised if when they come out in 4K, users get an option to upgrade their HD copies to 4K. Instead, expect a starting price of at least $100. I would purchase these movies today if I could pay a nominal fee to upgrade them at a later date.

We already know the argument the movie studioes will use, that this will continue paying royalties to some actors in the films and they are of course entitled to compensation for their work. But the biggest beneficiary of re-releases on new formats will probably be the studio that owns the film. Not that they aren’t entitled to some of that revenue, as I’ve mentioned, restoring and re-releasing movies doesn’t happen at zero cost. But how much revenue are they really entitled to for just repackaging something in a different box at a slightly higher quality? In some cases, the quality isn’t even that much better.

The cost of upgrading a film from 1080p to 4k, or from VHS to DVD, does not justify having to pay the same price as someone who is purchasing the media new. It’s not like they have to re-shoot the movie every single time this happens. Of course there are costs, but you can imagine that the majority of the purchase price of new productions of old media simply goes to the media companies that control the property. How do you think soe major studios have ended up where they are? All those re-releases of classic films pay off, year after year, format after format, from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray to Amazon Video in 1080P to 4K. I can’t imagine that the original voice actors and animators are still around or that the studios work hard to locate their heirs or beneficiaries to pay royalties.

On that note, media corporations have successfully lobbied to have their copyrights extended every time one is about to expire so now copyright terms are protected for 95 years, long past when creators and voice actors could benefit from copyright protection.

Why This Will Never Happen

This “paying for an upgrade” and “individual/consumer controlled licensing” of media will never happen without governmental intervention. The big media companies would be terrified of something like this digging into their huge profits and lobby strongly against it. Considering how much politicians seem to be in the pocket of the MPAA and movie studio rights lobbying groups based on how tight the collar has been pulled on DMCP (Digital Media Copy Protection), at the very least in the states, it would take a pretty massive grassroots effort among consumers to make this happen.

I mean heck, even HDMI is subject to HDCP (High Definition Copyright Protection) literally through just the cable meaning that you can’t even plug in a Macbook through an HDMI cable to a computer with an HDMI input and record the output without figuring out how to strip the signal of HDCP, even if you’re not recording copyrighted content. I mean, how would a wire or chip in your Macbook even know that whatever is on your display is copyrighted? That kind of technology would be extremely invasive, so instead the big tech companies that have been lobbied endlessly by the MPAA and government just filter everything.

If Only I Had the Time

I don’t currently have the time or the resources to launch such an effort, to truly make this happen, but I would wholeheartedly support any person or organization that does. This could be a good mantle for the EFF to take up next, as soon as their done fighting that AT&T guy.

I worry that our rights as digital consumers which started as an out of control free-for-all with everyone torrenting and illegal downloading are currently operating with a digital collar placed around consumer rights and protections by a phalanx of money and lawyers that have gone too far. With the internet being increasingly regulated, and new digital media formats coming along every few years, consumers need to help governments set precedents for what is and isn’t ok to charge extra for in the media industry. Hopefully next time I fly, I’ll know for sure that the movies I was sure that I’d rented or purchased are actually a part of my collection.

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