Published in Tribune, 9 May 2008
I have to confess to a most un-Tribune-like obsession, one that probably disqualifies me from my membership of Amnesty International, let alone from working for a progressive magazine. I am a fan of the TV series 24, which follows fictional anti-terrorist agent Jack Bauer’s violent quest to save America from terrorists. Bauer’s taste for torture is said to have inspired the CIA operatives at Guantánamo Bay.
During a recent holiday in the US, I glanced at the prices in a video store, and saw that the sadism of 24’s producers is not limited to the content of the show. DVDs in America cost roughly half what they do here – but there’s no point buying any and bringing them home, because US-bought DVDs don’t work in Britain.
This isn’t because of different technologies being used on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s actually a deliberate ploy by media conglomerates which ensures that they can overcharge their customers in Britain and other countries: DVD discs and players are programmed with a “region code”, and unless the player and disc are bought in the same region, the movie won’t play.
Region-coding on DVDs is just one of a range of technologies with no benefit to customers that the big studios are imposing on us in the name of stopping copyright infringement and unauthorised imports.
In fact, these technologies have dubious merits as anti-piracy measures: they are enough of a drag on consumers to make illegal downloading attractive, without erecting barriers to the determined criminal. What they do excel at, though, is boosting the profits of media companies. We are being ripped off.
Music CDs are now often engineered not to work on computer CD players. Music downloaded from online stores like Apple’s iTunes is deliberately crippled with digital rights management (DRM) software, preventing consumers from copying it between different players they own, and from lending it to friends. Songs bought on iTunes don’t even work on rival companies’ music players – forcing customers to buy Apple’s expensive iPods instead of cheaper rivals if they want to listen to their music on the go.
The media companies are treating their customers in a way it’s hard to imagine other industries getting away with – this is the sort of behaviour that trading standards and competition authorities usually intervene in. Yet, perhaps because these technologies are so insidious, and because they are presented as being legitimate protection from piracy, the studios have so far escaped censure.
Resolving the situation would actually be quite easy. Two simple changes in the law would, at a stroke, wipe out the worst excesses.
First, the Government should ban all region-coding in DVD players sold in Britain. This wouldn’t need special (and pricier) models built just for the British market – the difference between region-specific and non-region-specific DVD players is in how they are programmed, not in how they are built. This would not increase piracy – region-coding does not prevent illegal copying of DVDs, it prevents customers and retailers from importing them more cheaply – something everyone else accepts as part of free market capitalism.
Secondly, there should be a legal right, enforceable by trading standards authorities, to copy music and films for personal use – this would eliminate most forms of DRM, and prevent practices like Apple locking its iTunes users into buying iPod music players. (Companies that deliberately stop you from fully using a product you have legally acquired are in effect selling faulty goods.) Though this measure might lead to a small increase in illegal copying, pirates have already successfully bypassed DRM – the only people prevented from copying music by these technologies are the ones who actually have a legitimate reason to do so.
Only once these reforms are passed should the Government even consider tightening up the rules on online piracy as they have recently threatened to do, as constantly lobbied for by the studios.
Copyright infringement is clearly not OK. But the root cause of the problem is multinationals not playing fair, offering an appalling service and ripping off their customers. Solving one problem should go hand-in-hand with solving the other.
In the end, despite the siren call of the Internet pirates, I couldn’t quite stomach the idea of illegally downloading the latest series of 24 when I returned from America, and I bought the DVDs in Britain, despite my misgivings about the industry.
Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered. When I slid the first disc into the player, I discovered that, every four episodes, the studio had inserted an intrusive anti-piracy “education” video that I had to watch first. (They had even disabled the fast-forward button to make sure everyone was paying attention.)
Only afterwards was I able to enjoy Jack Bauer saving Los Angeles from terrorist attack, thanks to his hair-trigger and frequent resort to torture. Protecting America, the show’s not so subtle subtext implies, requires extreme measures, no matter how many innocent bystanders get hurt in the process. The parallels with the studios’ copyright policy are telling.
Friday, May 09, 2008
Published in Tribune, 9 May 2008
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