Monday, June 15, 2009

The beginning of the end? Virgin to offer subscription-based DRM-free downloads

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a strong advocate of subscription-based, DRM-free downloads of copyrighted content, something that remains unavailable anywhere in the world today.

In a press release today, Virgin Media, the UK's largest cable provider - which also acts as an ISP for most of its subscribers - is planning to offer exactly this to their customers. The idea is, you pay Virgin a fixed monthly cost, and can download as much music as you want in a DRM-free format that is technically free to be used in any way you wish.

Now, there's a lot of faults to be found in Virgin's offering. Only one of the four major music labels - Universal Music Group - have signed up for it, though Universal is the biggest of them all. The service itself won't actually arrive until Christmas, leaving plenty of time for things to go wrong. The pricing hasn't been announced - The Register reports unnamed sources quoted a price equivalent to "a couple of albums a month", which indicates something in the neighbourhood of £15-20, which may or may not seem a bit high depending on whether other labels and indies sign up to the service, but Virgin also says that there will be a cheaper price plan that will only allow a small number of downloads per month. Finally, the service is only going to be available to customers who get their broadband from Virgin in the UK, so is hardly going to solve the problem of digital availability of content on the global scale.

There is also the fact - implied but not stated outright - that Virgin got Universal to agree to join this service on the condition that it would crack down on file sharing users on its network. With the recent ruling in France that its own three-strikes law was unconstitutional, this shows another alarming attempt by the Big Content lobby to bypass law enforcement and the judiciary and enforce copyright law themselves, but I'm going to save my paranoia until I see what actually comes of this.

Despite all of the above, which I accept as valid concerns, I still find this announcement to be as momentous as when Apple announced that the iTunes store was going DRM-free for music back in January. I have always believed that the subscription model was the way to go for music in the digital age (and, possibly, video and text as well, though these are less clear-cut) but all attempts at implementing this in the past decade or so have been hampered by DRM files that would only play on one or two devices and often would be useless if the service ever went out of business. Offering this service via your ISP is also a very smart move; not only does this allow ISPs to get more money from their customers in exchange for something that has real value, it also allows them to offer their users super-fast downloads at little cost to themselves since all the content will be available on their own network.

If this service gets the support of the other major labels and the indies - and I don't see why it wouldn't - it will essentially be what everyone wants: File sharing without the hassle. You will get access to the musical cornucopia that we were first exposed to 12 years ago with the original Napster, except this time not only will it be legal, it will also mean high-quality, properly labeled, virus-free files that download almost instantly and don't cripple your Internet connection for days. I'd pay a tenner a month for that service in an instant - too bad I'm not a Virgin subscriber!

The most important thing this service will achieve, however, is to allay the baseless fears of Big Content that it will lead to the massive pirating of their copyrighted material. Astute readers will probably have already noted that this won't happen because it already has even without these services. The music labels have nothing to lose by offering these easily copied files to people because easily copied files are already out there - just not from any source that earns them revenue.

Will some people freeload? Sure, but people already do that, and usually out of necessity, not choice - and if the price is right most people will go for the convenience and safety of paying the subscription and enjoying their music, knowing that the cost is controlled and that they can go and sample new artists without getting charged extra. When their hard drives fill up, they can delete their seldom-played music safe in the knowledge that they can download it again if they ever change their mind at no extra cost. This is the way it was always supposed to be, even if it took the music industry thirteen years to get here.

Virgin's service isn't going to put all those BitTorrent trackers out of business overnight, since the vast majority of music listeners will have no access to it or anything similar, but I believe that once the floodgates open, similar services will soon launch that will be available to more people. I would not be surprised if the labels band together and offer any ISP the chance to start such a service with an easy package and well-defined costs, thereby solving everyone's problems with one go - the labels make money from people downloading their music, while the ISPs no longer see their expensive transit pipes clogged with P2P traffic and finally manage to raise their infamous ARPU with an extra service that people may actually be willing to pay for.

Personally I'm keeping a very interested eye on the movie industry at the moment. As broadband speeds have increased to make video delivery over the internet possible, the TV (production) and movie industries find themselves in the same place the music industry was a decade ago, but rather frustratingly they seem to be repeating the same mistakes the labels made: offering DRM-ridden files that can only be played in your web browser when most people prefer to enjoy their video on their big screen TVs while sitting on the sofa. The different usage patterns of video - you tend to watch TV shows and movies only once, and never more than a handful of times, while you will listen to most of your music countless times - may mean the model will have to be slightly different. The final question is how the publishing industry - still fumbling in the dark with the Amazon Kindle and similar limited solutions - might join the game if this becomes the norm in digital distribution.

As of today, I live in hope.

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