All screens are equal…

But are some more equal than others?

Over three million people have watched episodes of “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Alias” and “Commander-in-Chief” on their computers since US television network ABC launched the service at the start of May.

The shows are free, but come with a sponsor’s message at the start and three commercial breaks that can’t be skipped over, but this does not seem to have deterred US viewers who grow up watching many more ads than we get over here.

The downloads are part of an experiment by Disney, who own the network, and complement the paid-for and ad-free versions of the same shows available from Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

Just as you can choose to watch a movie with ads on ITV or without on FilmFour, so you can choose how you want to watch shows on your PC.

ABC are not the only ones dipping their toes into online distribution. Warner Brothers has attracted a lot of attention with its announcement that it will begin to use the BitTorrent peer-to-peer network to distribute DVD-quality movies.

This is a radical step, only spoiled by the fact that they plan to charge the same as for a DVD even though there is no physical disk and no packaging (and, I suspect, no extras). In addition they are so worried by unauthorised copying that the movie will only be playable on the PC to which it is downloaded. So no burning it to DVD to watch on your flat-screen TV or even taking a copy to your mate’s house to watch together.

Both initiatives, however flawed, show that the relationship between content – whether a movie or a TV show – and the screen is starting to change, on big and small screens.

And although take-up of TV on mobile phones has been slow it may well take off as the two great sporting contests of the modern age get under way.  With little overlap between audiences, the football World Cup and Big Brother between them could quickly establish the mobile TV habit in large numbers of people, so that by the autumn it will be commonplace to see people catching up on soaps and scorelines at bus stops.

The tension between the desire on part of TV and film studios to find new ways to reach audiences and their fear that their content will be copied and distributed outside their control is a serious matter, and serious people are involved in the struggle.

Last week I attended a lecture on intellectual property law at Emmanuel College here in Cambridge, given by Professor Jane Ginsburg, the grandly titled Morton L. Janklow Professor of Literary and Artistic Property Law.

Her subject was ‘Une Chose Publique? History and Rhetoric of the Copyright Public Domain in France, Great Britain and the United States’, which didn’t initially seem very promising or relevant to the ongoing debate.

Over the course of an hour she gave a witty, carefully argued and illuminating analysis of a question that matters a lot more than it seems to at first.  Basically, she was trying to establish whether the people who wrote the first copyright laws, like England’s 1710 Statute of Anne, believed that creators had the same sort of rights to their work as they had to physical property like land.
If they did then arguments about the extension of copyright that argue in favour of the ‘public domain’ can’t be based on historical examples, which weakens them, and the record companies are in a better position to call for the extension of copyright term or harsher penalties against infringers.

This may sound suitably academic, but in fact it was clearly another skirmish in the ‘copyfight’, and Ginsburg showed which side she was on when she contrasted her understanding of nineteenth century French law with ‘the rants of today’s cyberlibertarian copyleft’.

Ginsburg is not the only academic arguing in this area. In a recent talk at a conference in the Netherlands Princeton computer science professor Ed Felten compared those who want material distributed without the use of restrictive rights management technologies and companies like Warner Brothers to the two sides in the Cold War.

He sees the music industry as advocating a closed society and a managed economy in which freedoms are all removed and only that which is explicitly permitted is legal.

It’s a rather strained metaphor, and carries the danger that the argument will be diverted into discussion about the politics of West vs. East instead of focusing on the real issues.

But Felten does make a very promising proposal for those who advocate openness. He says that they should not just whinge about the restrictions but ‘show what technology can do — how it can improve the lives of ordinary citizens’.

This is the motivation behind Creative Commons, the initiative to encourage people to share their work and make it simple for other people to build on it.

At the moment film studios and record companies can argue that without strong copyright law backed up by legally-protected technical measures we risk having no new Coldplay albums and no more Farrelly brothers movies.

Personally, I could live without either, but it is only by having examples of the creativity that is possible in a less-regulated world that we can show that the quality of our lives will not be diminished.

Perhaps ABC, Warner and the other mainstream entertainment companies can be encouraged to experiment a little with more open and flexible distribution, so that we can see what will really happen if content is freely available.

They might be surprised, first at how much people are willing to pay for guaranteed quality and freedom to share, and second how much goodwill they generate.

Otherwise we’ll be faced with a world in which screens are everywhere but what you can watch and where you can watch it is controlled by rights holders.  That would be a waste of a golden opportunity to free content from its means of distribution and get us out of the age of television.
Bill’s Links
ABC sells online

Freedom to Tinker

Jane Ginsburg on Wikipedia
Warner downloads

One Reply to “All screens are equal…”

  1. Hi Bill. I really enjoy your Blog – it keeps me uptodate – difficult at 70+. WebUser magazine (current edition) published a letter of mine about favourite Blogs – so I gave you a mention. Ta!

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