THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: I download illegal content.

By September 5, 2012 Blog

The conversation about Australian film and television audiences, industries and screen agencies is stuck in a 1990’s paradigm of “us” versus “them” mentality to the detriment of everyone.

The Sydney Morning Herald article ‘Dr Who transports ABC to forefront of anti-piracy war’ published this week, is a classic example of the pirate / anti-pirate mentality that has the audience pegged as foot soldiers in a war with the networks and production houses. Let’s get one thing straight – It is not the responsibility of the audience to make content legally available, that is the job of the content makers and their gatekeepers. This should have been an opportunity to talk about maximizing viewership through the innovative iView platform allowing Australian audiences to participate in real time conversations with the rest of the world. Instead the debate has been framed in outdated terms.

As Nick Bilton reported in the New York Times “the most downloaded television shows on the Pirate Bay are the ones that are not legally available online.” The article goes on to spell out the inverse relationship between legal availability of material online and copyright infringement. People who download content are audiences first and “pirates” second, as a direct result of access issues. If they choose to profit from its production, it is the screen industry’s responsibility to supply content to keep up with demand. That’s capitalism right? The traditional model is clearly not working; 100 Million fewer movie tickets have been sold compared to 10 years ago according to Time magazine.

As David Pogue so eloquently put it in Scientific American “The people want movies. None of Hollywood’s baffling legal constructs will stop the demand. The studios are trying to prevent a dam from bursting by putting up a picket fence.” Speaking of dams bursting, the roll out of the National Broadband Network (NBN) is well and truly underway. With 4G mobile plans rolling out across the Telstra network the high-speed data freeway has finally arrived down under.

Austar CEO, John Porter recently summed up the situation on Lateline “…driving a superhighway into everyone’s living room is gonna just totally enable peer-to-peer piracy. So, if we in the television industry don’t go to school on the failings of the music industry in relationship to piracy and creating really user-friendly ways of acquiring media through micro payments and very simple user interfaces, we’re gonna end up with the same kind of statistics that someone quoted earlier, which is half our business is gonna be gone.”

The Australian industry is led by Hollywood and their associated copyright “protection” agencies on this issue. Boing Boing reported on a British entrepreneur Anton Vickerman, who is going to jail for 5 years for operating a search-engine called “Surf the Channel” which provided indexed links to online video content. It is perplexing why the global film industry didn’t seize this opportunity to acquire “Surf the Channel” as an asset to check for infringements instead of jailing a young, clearly intelligent entertainment fan. Cue public outrage and industry backlash. Particularly when the MPAA itself was recently reported to have infringed the copyright of the music featured globally in that famous “you wouldn’t steal a handbag / car” advertisement that we’ve all had to sit through for years. Its highly doubtful the infringement Gestapo will be knocking on its own door in this case.

The US industry’s muscle and might reaches far beyond its borders. Perhaps one of the main reasons the Australian film and content industries haven’t progressed the conversation beyond the “piracy” framework is because they are actually powerless to do so. The Six Faces of Piracy: Global Media Distribution from Below by Ramon Lobato is a compelling and fascinating resource which articulates how “the war on piracy is also about the struggle for authority and power on the global stage”. Beyond the financial imperative for the industry to survive and thrive, there are much bigger issues of access and power at play.

Australian audiences are clearly engaged with online content, outstripping the UK and many other countries to take 3rd place as the most prolific uploaders to the Pirate Bay according to Wired UK. Perhaps as a direct result of being at the mercy of antiquated business models based around ‘windows of release’ which often translates to Australian audiences waiting months for legal content options. Up until very recently Australian audiences could only purchase a poster from Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom to stare at while the rest of the world tweeted and conversed about the plot. It is such a large area of conversation that Radio National has a show dedicated to all of the content not available in Australia yet called ‘Unwatchable TV’.

A report for the music industry commissioned by Google and ‘PRS for music’ in June identified the six business models for copyright infringement. The stats revealed associated with screen-based content should be enough to shock the film industry into wholesale change. Live TV Gateway and P2P access models are both on the rise with access points increasing from thousands to millions. The three models primarily associated with music – embedded streaming, rewarded freemium and music transition showed declining use. This could be directly correlated to new consumer options such as Spotify, Rdio and Mog being launched on the market. Where are the film and television equivalents in the Australian marketplace?

So where to from here? People are at risk of instant dismissal for talking about content they have watched illegally, yet most people are doing it: its time to address the elephant in the room. Its time to take a long hard look at success stories like Louis C.K. topping $1M in direct to audience sales, 5M+ views of The Tunnel, and the simultaneous release of Walking Dead globally. If the money spent on prosecuting tech visionaries, bullying governments around the world and advertising “Piracy is bad mkaaay” was redirected to empower content makers to exploit, distribute, promote and ultimately protect their creative outlets, we would be having a very different conversation today.

The Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry in to Copyright and the Digital Economy was due to release an issues paper in August 2012 with recommendations for reform due by November 2013. Hopefully everyone involved will wake up tomorrow and start to contribute meaningful, innovative alternatives to the privacy and personal rights compromises currently being discussed.

In the meantime, Metro Screen; the NSW industry hub for the screen and content industry, is addressing the elephant in the room through an industry debate about piracy and its place in the Australian screen content industries.

Metro Screen presents an industry debate: Piracy
6.30pm Wednesday 7th November, 2012
Chauvel Cinema, Paddington

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The full list of speakers and the debate topic will be announced in the Metro Screen newsletter – sign up to receive updates here:

To stimulate discussion about this topic, this paper was written by Tiani Chillemi – Communications Manager, Metro Screen Thursday 6th September, 2012. Metro Screen encourages healthy debate and  an extended conversation about Piracy, however the organisation does not have a formal position on the topic.

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