Friday, November 20, 2009

An open letter to Kyle McSlarrow

Ars Technica featured an article by Kyle McSlarrow, head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, stating the case for Selectable Output Control. Here's my response.

Mr. McSlarrow,

iTunes, Amazon MP3 and many other services are making a brisk trade selling "unprotected" content. People flock to these services even though there are "free", illegal alternatives because of the convenience and high quality of the offering. I still hold that these services are overpriced and that lowering prices would give you increased revenues through more sales, but even today they are popular and profitable.

It's a false claim to say that anyone can "easily" use a BitTorrent tracker to download a new film and watch it. It's a tedious, inefficient, bandwidth-hungry process that would pale in comparison to the experience offered by services like iTunes or Netflix if they were stripped of DRM. I can clog my upstream broadband connection and download dodgy, mislabeled, low-quality, malware-infested files from a P2P site for "free" or I can download high-quality, easy-to-find, instant-play content from a legal source for a reasonable fee. People value their time, and they will pay for saving it, if only you'd allow them to.

In addition to DRM, geographical restrictions to online distribution are just as ridiculous. There are 1.9 billion people on the Internet today, but all your legal services are available to only a tiny fraction of these people for no sensible reason whatsoever. To make things worse, the people in countries without legal download services tend to also be the people without access to good cinemas, cable channels and other means of content distribution - i.e. the most likely to flock to an online service for content they can't get elsewhere.

Here are some undisputed facts:

1. DRM doesn't stop the determined copyright infringer. This is a simple fact of life. From a technical point of view, playing a media file and copying it are one and the same thing. If you can play it, you can copy it. End of story.

2. What DRM does do is inconvenience the casual, paying user. It makes time-shifting, format-shifting, backing up etc. very hard for them.

3. More importantly, it makes the things we haven't thought of yet very hard. People will come up with innovative ways to use your content in the future, just like portable music players were an innovative way to use your CD library. If music CDs had DRM, the PMP would never have taken off. I'm sure the music industry would have loved that, but nobody can claim that it would have been good for the consumer. DRM kills innovation by limiting content to currently existing uses.

You need to offer unprotected content at a reasonable price. The P2P networks can never match you on convenience and quality, their need to evade detection and offer things for zero cost guarantees that, and you can use legal channels to go after the biggest infringers. Some people will not pay to see your movies. That's OK. People buy second-hand DVDs or borrow them from friends, or just go over to their house and watch, all the time, you don't see a cent from that. That's fine, it's all baked into the price of the DVD, and you still turn a profit. Stop worrying about catching every last person that watches your movie without paying full price - that's futile. Concentrate on making it so simple, cheap and flexible for your paying users to get your content that they won't bother.

I don't want to "rent" your movie for 30-days-or-48-hours-after-start. I don't want to "stream" your movie to my browser. I don't want to download a file that won't play on half the hardware I own today and most of the hardware I buy tomorrow. I just want the bloody file with your movie in it.

There is nothing stopping you from doing this. You don't need laws, restrictions or DRM schemes to "enable" you to do this. You can do it today. You're already enabled. So please, just do it.

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