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Curbing Content Theft

We are spoiled. Those of us who have grown up with the internet are accustomed to instant gratification of information. How many feet are in a 3 meters? Google it. How old is Justice Thomas? Ask Siri. What’s the name of the song that’s playing right now? There’s an app for that. But this expectation of instant gratification breaks down when it comes to copyrighted content, specifically television and movies. And the unwillingness of the studios, cable networks, and content providers to cater to this expectation often drives a person to steal the content when they would have willingly paid for it. This problem is particularly acute for people who use operating systems like GNU/Linux. For example, a colleague of mine is a fan of a TV show named Workaholics which airs on Comedy Central. He runs a distribution of GNU/Linux, and once asked me how he could watch old episodes for this show, and it struck me that there really is no good way.

The most straightforward way would be to purchase the Comedy Central channel for your TV, but there are three major problems with this. First, in most areas, you cannot just purchase Comedy Central individually. You have to buy a bundle that include dozens or hundreds of other channels that you have no interest in. Moreover, you’re not interested in all of the shows on Comedy Central. If you just want to watch Workaholics, why do you have to purchase (and pay for) all the extra stuff? Second, young people increasingly do not own TVs, nor do they want to. They consume content on their computers which usually do not have TV tuners. Third, even if you had a TV and you were willing to pay for the extra channels, you still can’t watch old episodes of the show. And it is highly inconvenient to watch new episodes of the show as they air without purchasing a DVR since you would have to be physically present in front of your TV when the show is on. While this may have been a fact of life in the 1990s, consumer expectations have changed with technology, and it is no longer an acceptable solution.

Another way would be to purchase DVDs of old episodes of Workaholics. At the time of writing, Seasons 1 and 2 are out on DVD. But purchasing DVDs to watch old episodes of a TV show is an inconvenient solution for three reasons. First, my colleague just wants to watch the show once, not pay for the privilege of owning it on DVD, and with the demise of brick-and-mortar rental stores like Blockbuster, DVD rental is no longer realistic. Second, many of the same people who don’t have TVs also don’t have DVD players in their computers. Macbook Airs, for instance, do not have DVD players. Third, my colleague runs a distribution of GNU/Linux as his operating system, and playing a DVD he owns on his own computer can be illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act because it requires circumventing the encryption present on most DVDs. This is not a problem, of course, for those using Microsoft Windows or an Apple product, since those large technology companies can afford to negotiate with the content studios for a legal copy of the DVD decryption key.

Netflix is a promising solution, and it can be good for watching old TV shows and movies, but the service usually does not get content until years after it has aired. For instance, Workaholics Season 1 is available on Netflix but not Seasons 2 or 3. Netflix also does not work on GNU/Linux since it requires Microsoft Silverlight (an abandoned competitor of Adobe Flash). This makes Netflix useless for my colleague. Nonetheless, most young people I know have a Netflix subscription, which demonstrates that they are willing to pay for content when it is available in a convenient form.

Finally, there is the possibility of purchasing episodes on iTunes or Amazon Instant Video. But both of these are not compatible with GNU/Linux (at least not officially), and my colleague only wants to watch (or “rent”) the episode once, not own the episode for repeated viewings. Although these services allow “renting” some episodes, this option is only available for certain content.

None of these solutions are good, and for a GNU/Linux user, there is simply no convenient, legal way to consume movies and television. The solutions are particularly bad when compared with how easy it is to steal content via the internet. I do not know anyone who likes stealing from the people that put so much work into producing high-quality content. But the unwillingness of the owners to offer the content in a medium acceptable to consumers at a reasonable price often incentivizes people to do so.

The music industry once suffered from this problem: it wasn’t long ago where you had to purchase a full 16-song CD just to get the one song you were interested in. The generation that grew up with Napster, however, came to expect convenient, cheap access to music that interested them. Music studios did not easily let go of its antiquated business model, but once they started offering MP3s for sale online for a reasonable price in a format that could be played by everyone without restrictions (such as $1 per song on Amazon MP3), illegal music downloads have decreased precipitously. In fact, among many young people, stealing music has become all but taboo because of the ease with which you can purchase music legally.

Sooner or later, the movie and television industry must adapt correspondingly. Consumers stopped paying for full CD albums when more convenient, if illegal, means for obtaining music were available. The music industry rightly and responsively refined its business model, and today most music consumed is purchased legally. The cable television channel “bundles” are much like the CD albums of the 1990s. People do not want to pay for content that they do not want to consume. Like the music industry, the movie television industry must refine their business model in a thoughtful and responsive way if they want to diminish the incentives for their customers to steal.


About the Author

Harry Khanna

Harry Khanna is a Staffer for the Columbia Science and Technology Law Review. He is a 2L at Columbia Law School.
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