By Mo Ali, U.K. Business Development, Media Science International –
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, file sharing had been something of a dark art, strictly for the uber-techies with lightning fast (56 Kbps!) internet speeds. For most, it was simply easier to just pay someone to copy and burn the content onto a CD-R. What came next, however, would change consumer behavior, content delivery and more importantly, availability, for good: Napster. With the sound of the modem cracking away, suddenly it was easy for anyone to share and download content, with no need to connect to a server or be invited into an IRC channel. Simply install the software, search for a title, and double-click to start the download.
All of this seems normal now, during a time when you can use your voice to buy a song or film from your mobile or in-home connected device. But in the early days this was not the case, and for most the only way to get digital content was through purchasing a physical product (e.g. CD, DVD etc.).
With no licensing deals in place, and a wanton disregard for copyright holders, within the span of a few short years there were multiple copy-cat file sharing platforms available, all providing instant access to free content.
It was a simple business model, attracting newbies and novices alike with the enticement that what they sought was freely available and required little or no technical skill to obtain. But nothing is for free; soon it became a game to identify the fake files from the real ones and users were becoming increasingly more aware of the risks of installing P2P software bundled with adware that slowed everything down and occasionally changed the home-page in Internet Explorer.
Whether deliberate or by sheer coincidence, during the early DRM days trying to copy files onto different devices wasn’t exactly easy and put off lots of people. Due to a lack of storage and portable devices, the desktop based file sharing clients were the easiest and most reliable places to get content.
As usability and availability of quality content steadily increased, content owners focused on enforcement; until then most had associated theft with physical items, but now it was possible for the average person to steal something from behind his or her computer multiple times a day without the threat of being caught. Headlines in tabloids and blog postings ensured the message was clear, “digital copyright theft was not only wrong but against the law,” and “uploaders would be prosecuted,” although few if any were deterred as many knew the chances of this were rather slim.
A race to release content first
Fast track two decades and we still have the same issues, just different content made available by a different type of host — streaming services. No longer is bandwidth, accessibility or portability an issue — it’s now an arms race to see who can deliver the content first, fastest, and furthest.
In the same way we revisit our favorite online retailers, the infringing streaming sites rely on repeat business. With no rules, licensing issues, or borders to worry about, the clear winners are always the groups and sites that live-stream or post content minutes after it has aired. I’ll let others tell you which shows are pirated the most, but what I will tell you is what that does is open those sites to a wider Netflix-type audience who may now want to watch all the seasons of a criminal thriller or sitcom for free.
In the past, speed was used to measure bandwidth, now it’s how quickly you can access content and this is why Android boxes with customized apps are so popular, none more so than Kodi. The techies among us will know that it’s not Kodi, but the apps within the Kodi store, that provide access to the streaming sites. Like Kazaa and Napster before, however, it’s the brand name associated with how to get content and for the industry, Kodi has been the focus of attention.
The ‘illicit’ connection
In the U.K., the official term “illicit streaming devices” is not glamorous, but it captures the issue nonetheless. An “illicit streaming device” is any connected device providing accessing to illegal streams. The devices, and more importantly the apps, do not host content, rather they simply connect to websites one can access via their web browser on a desktop or mobile device, and aggregate the content into a user friendly graphical interface with the ability to search multiple sites simultaneously without being subjected to bandwidth limitations, peer/file availability or adware.
From an enforcement perspective, our focus is in identifying and removing the URLs providing access to the content to ensure users of the web sites and apps cannot view the content. Chasing app developers is costly and time consuming and experience has taught us that if the content isn’t available, then users will move to the next service as there is no loyalty when you’re not tied down to a fee based subscription. Working with the developers is an option, and it appears the Kodi developers would prefer not to be associated with this type of activity. In the same way, major marketplaces where the boxes have been sold, like Amazon and eBay, no longer allow the items to be listed.
These types of sites will always have the “competitive” advantage of being able to make content instantly and globally available for free. Taking down links will always be the whack-a-mole approach used for download and torrent links. Some may argue what is even the point, but it can be effective and deter those who are unable to obtain the content they seek, although persistent users will eventually find what they want.
The combined strategies mean there is now a holistic approach to enforcement rather than one area of focus. Crucially in a social media driven age, raising the awareness about the illegality around the apps is also proving to be effective.
In 2017 broadcaster BT aired the Champions League Final for free on You- Tube in the U.K., and the volume of viewers was higher than figures achieved for the previous rounds. Although this is not the first time a broadcaster has used “freeview” content to attract new users, higher prices for the advertising slots help make this a profitable exercise.
Lessons have been learned by content owners from the illegal services: give consumers what they want and look at other ways to generate review. Ad revenue works for the pirate sites and for content on YouTube, so are monthly subscriptions really the only way to get consumers paying for content?