Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital agenda, shook the world of Brein and Buma (the Dutch equivalents of the MPAA and RIAA) last week: we can do without you, she indicated. At the very least the role of organisations like Brein en Buma have to be seriously curtailed. "We must ensure that copyright serves as a building block, not a stumbling block," according to Neelie Kroes. Amen to that!
Digital distribution of films, T.V.-series and music is common in many countries. Not in the Netherlands. Other than music there is no media available on digital distribution platforms. There are some obscure websites that offer B- and C-movies with a smattering of just-A-movie thrown in. These sites often charge far too much for their services and their provenance is sketchy. They do not form a secure basis to build your viewing pleasure on.
In the U.S. it has become quite normal to view films and episodes of your favourite T.V.-series with the help of a small box coupled to your T.V. This could be a Google-TV, an AppleTV, a Boxee box or any other device offering Internet connection. These boxes can use services like Hulu or Netflix to obtain the chosen material. Legal and convenient. Especially when your DVD or BluRay collection is threatening to swamp you.
Here in the Netherlands this is not possible because Brein and Buma are in the way. Instead of convenience and service I get a long, patronising video at the start of every legally bought DVD warning me against piracy and the dangers of stealing movies. I bloody well bought this DVD! I'm not the one you should be warning! Stop bothering honest people, Brein, and let me watch my movie. You know what, never mind. I'll go on the Internet and download the movie. That gets rid of all your stupid moralising BS. And no, Brein, that is not illegal: in the Netherlands it is legal to obtain and own a copy of legally bought media by any means, including downloading. And if I can prevent watching your stupid warning videos by doing so, I will. And there you have the counterproductive principle demonstrated.
As we have seen in the music industry, making films available through digital distribution is the way to reduce piracy. It turns out that most people are willing to pay for their media consumption but the price needs to be reasonable and the threshold to procurement must be low.
Of course illegal downloading will not disappear completely when you start offering films through legal networks. But the question then rises how much this remainder of illegal downloading hurts the industry. The answer to that question can only be given when some other questions are resolved first: Would people who download films illegally have bought the film if it were not available on illegal networks? How many of these illegally downloaded films are actually watched and keep a bum out of the cinema seat? How can the rising number of cinema visitors be explained if illegal downloads are that harmful? Could it be that downloading films might be the best promotional tool the film industry has ever had?
Brein and Buma fight a battle on bureaucratic grounds. Rules are rules and rules have to be implemented no matter how the world is changing. There is no thought on the how and why of the rules. How does the process work and change? What real effect does illegal downloading have? The law is there to protect a process not to blindly implement when the process changes.
Neelie Kroes seems to have understood this. At least I hope that thought is behind her speech. She seems to understand that the world is changing and that there are now technological opportunities that give the old laws long grey beards. It is time to air out the old copyright laws, give them a bit of an overhaul. It is time for media distribution 21st century style!