User Generated Content – The Life Blood of the Internet and an AntiThesis of the Traditional Copyright System…

The Internet has been accused by many people, typically most of them associated with the Motion Picture Industry of harbinging piracy, and scaling exponentially the quantum of localised DVD piracy. This perspective isn’t entirely false, the only trouble is that when one sees things from a holistic perspective, the Internet has actually broken the back of what the traditional copyright system stood for.

The traditional copyright system which involved 2-3 centuries ago was designed to be a motivational tool for artists and creators. Over a period of time, it became a very limited monopoly, allowing only few people into it. It limited opportunities for creators and made them dependent on the publishers or the producers. In many cases, the bulk of the revenue was earned by the publishing companies, and the artists only got a small percentage of the royalty. This argument is ‘fair enough’ to some extent, because the publisher bears the risk in case of financial loss. This issue concerns the producers and the artists, but the larger problem of this system was that since a huge amount of investment was needed, it limited the distribution of the created content.

The Internet was designed to be a distribution medium, and a great one at that, and was never intended by its creators to be the next big market place. It is this thing that has gone terribly against the traditional copyright content creators, and is the reason why monetization of copyrighted content seems to be such a pain point for the copyright industry, typically the Film Industry in India.

Today, things have changed. Tonnes of content are created by users, and flipped around the Internet. No one knows who created them, no one knows how many millions, they will reach. Understandably, the content dies a quick death. But no one charged any money to create content, no one paid any money for purchase or access of content, and no one charged anything for distribution, all done within the framework of Internet access, thus completing the cycle of what the copyright industry stood for.

The underlining point here, is ‘access-to-anyone’ to be a part of this new system, something that was not a part of the original Copyright system. The potential to earn money is definitely much much lower, although the potential to win yourself millions of hearts definitely is. The stars of the Internet may never be as big as Stars of the Silver screen, but content creators like TheViralFever, AllIndiaBackchod, Bloggers like Lavanya Mohan, Krish Ashok etc have all earned fan bases for themselves.

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As with film or primary material like news paper, cartoons, these user generated content hold historical evidence of user’s thought processes and their lifestyles, at a given point in time. Even if users may use Copyrighted content as a base for content derivation, most of it would definitely fall within the realm of ‘Fair Use’.

Without User generated content, Engines like Facebook, Blogger, Wikipedia, YouTube or Twitter would cease to exist. The amount of time spent by ordinary users accessing content on these popular portals, had they not been there, may have gone towards watching Top-Down,native copyrighted content like Films, whether legally or not.

We have also reached a critical point where we need to debate if User Generated Content is as valuable or equal to that of Traditional Copyrighted Content, today for the ordinary Indian citizen. If that be the case, shouldn’t the Industry be seeing this as a more dire threat rather than continuing to focus¬†and blame Piracy, when legitimate threats have already encircled it from the flanks, when one considers the ‘expendable-time’ factor?

‚ÄčAbsurdity of contemporary Video Distribution models..

A few years ago, there was a grey area in video consumption, via YouTube. The question was ‘Was it legal and ethical to download content on YouTube for offline consumption?’ 

The question was particularly important back then considering that, mobile devices and content consumption was on the rise for content access on the go, but data charges were not affordable specifically for video, considering that video is a huge bandwidth hog. 

The situation hasn’t changed much since then, but we’ll come back to it, in a bit. 

To solve this problem, many third party applications that would enable the user to cache video content from YouTube offline when WiFi was available, so that users could later view the content at their convenience within the confines of their devices, without being bothered about the mobile data charges or availability of the Internet. 

Two things facilitated this arrangement. YouTube’s API support for authenticating third party clients helped this immensely and the codec standards used by YouTube would be open standards and non proprietary. Since open Codec standards were used, This largely meant that caching of content and therefore taking content offline through technological means would not be much of a hassle for normal streams although YouTube continued to apply encryption (DRM) for specific video files on request by the rights holder. 

As the mobile market continued to evolve with better mobiles becoming cheaper and faster connection standards like 3g replacing edge and 2g, mass switchover to mobile consumption took place. Many nascent subscribers experienced the power the Internet for the first time. 

This facilitated immense growth of non video services like email, social media, productivity applications etc, but video by its nature of being bandwidth intensive, people could not have the freedom of choice to consume content due to economic reasons. 

Possibly Sensing stagnant growth, YouTube bit the bullet itself, allowing users to cache content within the application a couple of years ago, taking upon itself, the solution of solving the ethical question raised in the beginning of this post. 

Since then Google has realised the maturity and inconveniences of the Indian mobile Internet market and therefore made not just YouTube but also it’s other services like Google Docs, Email and also even it’s Google maps for offline downloading. 

YouTube continues to remain the dominant near defecto ‘video consumption’ website globally. In this background, one needs to analyse the recent emergence of other global alternate video streaming services like Netflix and HotStar and the much anticipated Amazon Prime service in India. 

As a rule of thumb, there are 3 A’s (Availability, Affordability and Accessibility) that are mandatory for the meaningful penetration of video in any market. The value of these attributes could not be better highlighted than today, when the shelf life of ‘Top-down’ generated media content continues to fall and so does its exclusivity as a public engagement tool. 

Let us now analyse the case of Netflix and HotStar. These models do not intend to compete with YouTube as a mass, two way video ‘user engagement’ medium, but follow the classic ‘Top-down’ model of providing one way content to its consumers. It’s definitely much more ‘niche’ than YouTube. 

These models are betting on ‘exclusivity’. Unlike the doomed ‘C2H network of director Cheran’ who did not have the native bandwidth to constantly generate new and updated content and had to rely on external variables, HotStar probably realised that it was generating sufficient material via its TV network to start its own distribution medium and bring other people on board as the story went along. Netflix although new in India has been around long enough in the content distribution business even from DVD days (like the failed Seventymm.com business model) and has started investing on its niche ‘Netflix Exclusive Digital content’ apart from distributing content of other creators. This exclusive content creates the possibility for users to break away from YouTube and come towards them. 

Although these models charge a recurring monthly fee allowing unlimited access to their catalogues, they do not directly compete with piracy. HotStar has a Freemium model which provides users to sample some of its content for free, while pushing a large quantum of its catalogue to the ‘Premium Tier’ for Rs.199 a month. 

Netflix offers a free one month trial before its monthly plans start at Rs. 500 for SD. It’s HD tier stats from Rs. 650. These are clear cut paid services. Although they allow unlimited access to content, they should be seen as a ‘Revenue Enhancer’ rather than a ‘Piracy Beater’ because they work on ‘exclusivity’. 

In the recent past, there has been immense pressure on large scale piracy sites like ‘K.a.t’, ‘The Pirate Bay’ etc making pirated content harder to come by ( A user hell bent on pirating content will find it anyway). 

Some of these regularly filtered content prone to piracy distribution like English movies and TV shows are regularly filtered out from pirate networks and are also available on these services and this creates an opportunity for a user in India to see this content legally at an affordable price point. This is a move that definitely needs to be appreciated. 
Do we classify these services as a ‘Piracy Beater’ or a ‘Revenue Enhancer’? More important than its classification is the need to highlight what is a stupid business move by these services. 

Unlike YouTube, these services do not allow caching of content on mobile devices. There are stories speculating that they may come soon, but they aren’t there yet. But shouldn’t thisnhave happened long ago? 

people are paying for content , yet cannot access them according to their convenience. What good is content in India if it has to be accessed only via WiFi and cannot be cached to be seen later? 

This makes no point to a potential customer on the ledge and will drive him back towards piracy. So from this argument, they need to be probably classified more as a ‘Revenue Enhancer’ since it doesn’t seem to be focusses on the user who may want to view pirated content. 

While it’s easy to point fingers at legitimate distribution services, there are more finer points that may be needed to be looked at. Probably it isn’t entirely the fault of these services themselves, but it high time, copyright holders see the ground realities and the practical problems faced by customers of these so called legitimate distribution models. 

In this case, the availability of content is limited ( due to licensing issues – The irony is. That copyright continues to work on a global geographical scale when piracy has long transcended these barriers) – even if is ‘affordable’ – stupid restrictions like these,  make content practically ‘inaccessible’. 

Mind you, the content offered for offline access is DRM encrypted and users cannot download them, so what really is the problem for these rights holders and distribution companies to provide offline access to paying customers, i don’t understand. 

Piracy continues to live on, not only due to economic reasons. It also happens largely due to the ‘convenience’ it offers, a simple mantra which the legitimate world of media distribution keeps failing to understand.