Sunday, February 18, 2007

Piracy on the Digital Highway

When Steve Jobs threw down the gauntlet to the music producers and suggested removing prohibitive and unfriendly DRM, he was certainly opening the DRM debate. Last week, not surprisingly he got support from Yahoo, but more surprisingly, his timing coincided with debates in publishing on the emotive issue of ‘open access’ and a new access debate in the film industry. All media seems under siege by the pirates in the digital arena.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that executives at Hollywood studios now believe that it is only a matter of time before the debate over removing copyright protections spreads to the movie industry. Until now, the studios have asserted their copyright in the use of DRM. The debate now centres on the needs of the home entertainment channel and their continued and growing battle with the pirates, whose copies of movies are circulate freely online without any restrictions on how they are traded or copied. Many now fear the situation will get worse in the near future.

Today we have Pirate Bay, a multi media version of the original file sharing Napser. The site is as big as USA Today and its 1.5 million visitors and growing. It uses file sharing BitTorrent software and Envisional, a UK company that tracks illegal downloading for Hollywood studios estimates that 4 million surfers in North America and Europe use Bit Torrent on a daily basis. The technology is so efficient that the BBC has adopted it for distributing its programme archive.

Hollywood starts from a different position from the music companies. Unlike most compact discs, DVDs come with tight restrictions aimed at preventing consumers from easily copying movies. Although they are much harder to break, even the next-generation discs known as Blu-ray and HD DVD have been found to have flaws in their copyright protection.

The Wall Street Journal article stated that many movie executives agree that physical DVDs still need copy protection, but that some are starting to discuss whether the heavy-duty digital rights management, now on electronic copies, is the right route. While movies sold on Apple's iTunes can be played on as many as five computers and an unlimited number of iPods, most online movie stores offer far less flexibility.

Having just upgraded to a new laptop and Windows Vista, I share some of the frustrations of trying to deal with transferring files in an overtly restrictive DRM world. Although some studios favour finding a way to let consumers move their previously purchased movie from device to device, others sadly believe each upgrade represents a new sales opportunity for the same content that was on the older device.

This week we read the latest digital copying scandal. It comes not from the pop music market but the conservative world of classic music. It involves English pianist Joyce Hatto’s highly acclaimed works, which now appear not to be virtuoso pieces played by her but mere copies or remixed renditions of others performances. Over 100 discs released on her husband’s record label, said to be recorded with full orchestra, in a studio near their home in Hertfordshire. We understand, or at least are familiar with the pop music world of ‘sampling’, mixing other’s works into a new form. The fact is that digitisation is making copying easier.

Many in book publishing are only just entering these murky digital high seas. Should they stop and wait for calm waters or sail forward? It is far easier to copy and reproduce books and printed material than any other media. A good scanner and OCR facilities can get anyone into the market so it is imperative that the book industry makes it easy for the customers to browse, buy and enjoy digital books.

The Sunday Times, in an article on piracy stated that recent Treasury report on Intellectual Property concluded that DRM constraints and over protection actually encourages innovation and the next big thing that consumers seek. So we find ourselves again trying to protect on one hand yet give the consumer what they want on the other. Maybe just as with the pop pirates of the 1960’s the digital pirates of today will force a significant change in the market.