​Absurdity 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. 

Understanding ‘Internet Piracy’ concepts via Our Own Tamil Cinema..

One of the feedbacks that I had recently got from a respected individual is that , he had given me was that the blog was too technical and difficult to grasp from a common man’s view point. I agree. I had planned that the English version be a little more technical, but the Tamil translation to be a diluted version and talking in even more layman terms. So, keeping this in mind, i have decided to do a simple illustration to explain a concept, which i have spoken in another Video. I am trying to explain, How Decentralisation of the Internet largely benefits Piracy. I have also added the ‘Ramana’ Footage for Reference.

 

Ramana_Centralised

 

So, as the Yugi Character mentions, you can see in the Image that probably Kumaresan and Zakir Hussain probably don’t know each other, yet there is a centralized node that connects both of them, without themselves knowing each other. The centralized Node ( Professor Ramana) instructs them and is clearly hierrarchially much higher than the others. So, a collapse of the Central Node, will destroy the system, so, by tracking the smaller nodes and mapping them together, eventually, Professor Ramana comes out and reveals himself and with that the ACF network collapses, which is what the conclusion of the movie, also is.

Unfortunately, the Movie industry may have wished that Piracy and Internet Piracy in particular worked in this fashion. Sadly, it is not. It works in an entirely de-centralized fashion, something like this.

Ramana_Decentralised

 

You can see in this kind of network architecture, again Possibly, Kumaresan and Zakir Hussain do not know each other. They may not even know Professor Ramana, because, each node can independently operate on its own, yet seek support from its nearest node. Typically beyond one or two levels, communication is not accessible for a single node.  The advantage of this system in the context of Piracy, is that there is no single Professor Ramana here. Even Zakir Hussain and Kumaresan themselves have the power of Professor Ramana. Zakir Hussain, Kumaresan, Ramana and everyone in the network may be doing more or less the same kind of work. So, at some level, they act as competitors, yet they also share knowledge and common resources, which are distributed, so that, there is no single point of failure.

The typical pattern that we see is by the time, Law and Enforcement catches up with one or two nodes, hundreds of new nodes are created else where. More over, a single node may himself not know beyond one or two nodes himself, so, this complicates the situation, even more.

 

 

Digital Rights Management and its impact in the Current ‘CopyRight-Piracy’ Conflict..

The first half of the decade, the years 2000-2006 were the years where the legitimate industry bore the brunt of the Piracy onslaught. The legitimate industry simply was too confused as changes were happening at such a rapid level and ordinary users were getting sucked into Piracy, at a growth rate, possibly never seen much, before by mankind.

At that point in time, The industry itself was internally faced by several dilemmas, themselves. It could never bring itself to the fact that things (or media) could be sold entirely in a digital format and believed that users must and should consume legitimate physical products and it was much more legal and ethical. But it failed to realize that content entirely digital had a certain convenience that physical did not provide.

Another possible reason was that physical sales, in the short term were still not being impacted, and switching entirely to digital could hurt physical sales. This dilemma continues even today, and exists in various forms, when one sees the over all ‘Copyright-Piracy’ conflict. This particular issue, i like to refer to as a ‘Seesaw Conundrum’ ( when you try to raise one end for a benefit, you end up losing something on another side). The ‘SeeSaw conundrum‘ in itself, i see as part of a larger ‘External Variable conundrum‘, a phenomenon that is beyond control of an individual or an organization and happens due to the totally diverse and potentially overlapping regions of the Internet.

Another problem faced by the Industry was that if it even decided to move towards a ‘Digital’ only model, as most of them have today, there were no proper digital payment infrastructure in the banking and Economic transaction system, as stable and relatively secure as we see today. Following 2006, Piracy continued to grow even faster, especially when Internet Piracy began to outclass traditional Disc based piracy, but by then the Industry had overcome the early shock and had produced several limited counter attacks and potential ‘Revenue generative’ attempts to fight Piracy on price. While most of them may have produced ‘short term results’, several of them have sunk and are slowly being lost to obscurity.

But amidst all this, one move seems to be clearly one of the tools that the ‘Copyright Industry’ will use as a weapon which is already in contemporary use and which is out to stay in the long term. Although DRM can be used for multiple applications including Audio* and Video**, it is primarily associated with Books.

So, this blog post will focus primarily on how DRM is applied to Books, and try to dissect its role in the phenomenon. Back then, even in the Analog world, Books were duplicated, some through Xerox and some through cheap copies. But the economics of that time meant that only ‘Best sellers’ were likely sold through such counterfeit books. This phenomenon even continues to this day, and one can find cheap copies of such books in M.G.Road or majestic circle. They cost typically around Rs.50-100 and are quite cheap when compared to an original book. The quality of print and paper is typically very poor, and is virtually uncomparable to an original.

But the rate and scale of copying offered by Digital Technology and the sharing infrastructure that the Internet enabled made this a much more serious issue. In all fairness, Book Piracy was relatively low in the ‘2000-06′ era and the brunt was borne by the Movie and the Music Industry. This could be explained by a simple logic that the hardware form factors – be it a Desktop or a Laptop were not suited to reading Books, unlike today’s Ereaders or Tablets.

If one looks at most of the research done over the Internet after spending possibly millions of dollars – inevitably, most of them draw one of these two conclusions – “Piracy boosts Legal sales’, or ‘Piracy destroys Legal sales and costs millions of jobs and millions of dollars in taxes to the Government”. This loop goes on with each new research trying to outprove, its counterpart’s conclusions.

But in an era of 2000-06, it may have made some sense, for the ‘Pro Piracy’ advocates, who said that Pirating book users go on and buy legitimate physical books, because the Pirated copy allowed them to read a sample. The logic may have held water back then. There were also links that this famous author advocated Piracy and said that it boosted his sales. ( I believe it is his official blog).

But today, in a world of EReaders, Tablets and Kindles, it is that much more likely that a pirating Ebook user would pay to buy physical content, because in many ways, the digital experience is much more convenient than the physical one, and how many would want to buy a physical one, which is less convenient, when they get the more convenient digital version for free?

So, this is where DRM comes in. It relies on a logic that a pirated copy will originate from a unencrypted legal Ebook copy, and that is why it needs to have some measures to avoid copy. The logic is good at one level, but fails, because unlike its other cousins, which have almost long since and almost are on the fringe of abandoning physical products, physical books still hold ground. Maybe, there is really is something about Paper.

So, DRM technically stops or makes it difficult for a legal Ebook to be duplicated and pirated, but there is no proven theory that it helps boosts book sales. It is just a ‘Piracy Stopper’, but in no way, unlike say ‘Saavn’ or ‘Moser Baer’ , a revenue generator, which by themselves, become ‘Piracy Stoppers’.

While DRM has to protect the rights of the Copyright Holder by preventing duplication of digital copies, it also has to protect the rights of the buyer, many of whom want the freedoms and flexibility that physical books offer them. So, DRM has to balance the needs of both users. So, let us see, how this works out in today’s Digital ECommerce, App Ecosystem and the Cloud.

 

#1

Depending on the case, a user may have permanent or temporary access to a Ebook. A user may choose to permanently purchase a copy of a book via Amazon Kindle or Google Play. This entitles them to access the book through their own various stock clients across multiple Operating Systems that ‘sync’ information about the book’s position and gives the user a seamless experience. Another alternative application that DRM offers is similar to renting a physical book from a library. While I am unaware if this feature is available through traditional Ebook stores, it is available if you are a member of the British Library.

Once you pay for an online membership( The Library has several schemes that allow users to rent Physical Books, Optical Media like DVDs, Magazines, Children’s comics etc), the British Library gives the user, the availability of Ebooks that can be rented. The user can choose the book, and click download and which leads to a temporary file that contain metadata like the Date Of Download. This Temporary file can be opened in an ‘Adobe Digital Editions’ Application ( the normal Adobe Reader won’t work), which reads the details in the file and starts the download process of the file. The user will also need to have a registered ‘Adobe Account’. The file is downloaded and can be seen and viewed in the Adobe Digital Editions Application like a normal PDF. The only difference is that after the period ( typically 14 days), the file will stop working, and the user will have to repeat the original process and get a new rental key from the British Library server.

#2

Once the book is purchased, the user can download the book offline on the client. In most cases, a copy of the most updated version of the book rests on the Service’s server. The user has the option to add Annotations, while some services offer a ‘One Touch’ integration to share select ‘quotes’ directly on Twitter and Facebook. The Kindle Edition also offers a direct integration with the Book Review and Dedicated Book Social Media website – Good Reads (?)

#3

once the book is downloaded and authenticated, users can add their notes, bookmarks and highlights. Although, the device gives the appearance of over the top, imprints, it is a digital mirage. The device handles both these info seperately, and only momentarily places the annotations at specific co-ordinates over the book. This is the reason, why an Annotation made in 1 client, when sync’d over the cloud, can be deleted over the other. Users who use the ‘Image Annotation’ Feature in Evernote/Skitch across multiple devices can also understand this concept better.

Citing from the book, Multimedia Systems Design by Prabhat.K.Andleigh & Kiran Thakrar  – “Image Annotation can be performed in one of the two ways ; as a text file stored along with the image or as a small image stored within the original image. The annotation is over layed over the original image for display purposes. While this may sound simple enough, it is not without complication. It requires tracking multiple image components associated with a single page, decompressing all of them, and ensuring correct spatial alignment as they are overlayed.” 

Once this process is done, the annotated book is sync’d across the cloud. The details of the book can be download on another client via the same process. So, now having described a simple technically on how DRM works, let us consider a Socio-Ethical Debate on where DRM lies today. As with almost every technical development over the Internet, there are Pros and Cons.

#4

 

As you can see from the graph, the first function that any paying user wishes to have is that all his rights of an Analog book should be translatable in a digital version. The advantages that Digital Technology provides over Analog should be fully available, without any hassles.

  1. For instance, Digital Technology easily allows the ‘Copying of Text’ for citation purposes much more easily rather than Physical Text.
  2. Digital Technology allows the possibility of ‘Text to Speech’ which can particularly be useful for people with special ‘Attention, Viewing and Reading Difficulties”.

On the other side, DRM’s main function is to Stop a legal copy being Pirated. Although, there are other ways how Pirated copies will come out, as explained below, and which is way beyond the scope for DRM to help.

So, in addressing both these world’s, where does DRM fail or where does it Win? Let us consider a small example, of a book that i purchased?

1. Copying of Text – “The need to resort to a song in a given situation is perhaps a continuation of a literature-oriented aesthetic where versification or poetry…” This is a citation from one of the books that i am currently reading. ‘The Eye of the Serpent – An Introduction to Tamil Cinema by Theodore Baskaran”. While the app allows me, a paid user to copy a citation ( which is about 1-2 paragraphs into Evernote, which i index with other data), the app limits the copy to a mere 140 characters. The larger irony is that not even a complete sentence could be copied, and I am not using it for Twitter, for me to limit my text to 140 characters.

So, in the absurd logic that a pirating user may copy away reams of pages, using ‘Copy&Paste’ logic, DRM has put a fix of 140 characters, in the hope that it will be too big for a pirating user to copy a book. Since, it isn’t helping a legally purchased user anyway, i suggest making the copy limit to 14 characters, which will make it 10 times even more tougher for the pirate to copy. It isn’t helping a legal user much, anyways.

2. Intercompatibility of Playback Clients – The beauty of the PDF format was that one need not necessarily use the Adobe Reader to read it. The Foxit reader is faster, consumes less Resources, has more features and is also free like the Adobe. This gives the user the freedom of choice. A similar logic can be applied for movies. Play a movie in VLC, or any other player, which you like.

But DRM sadly is not. In most cases, the DRM implementation is proprietary and not compatible. For instance, if i Purchased a book via Amazon Kindle, and i like the IBooks reader better in the Ipad, i cannot play it. I have to only use the stock Kindle App. Big Nuisance, this is. It gets worse, in other conditions. I like to use the ‘Voice Dream App***’ which is a dedicated player, customized for individuals with ‘Attention and Reading difficulties like i do”. Its ‘TextToSpeech’ is seriously out of the world, and it plays non DRM documents really really well, as if a real Human was reading out to you. But sadly, these DRM books won’t allow you to open in such players.

3. The Monopoly – There have been allegations that when a famous Ebook services company purchased an ‘Audio Book’ company, it purposefully killed its automated ‘TextToSpeech’ app, since now users would be forced to pay for the much higher priced Audio Books, if they wanted to simultaneously access Reading the book, while parallely listening to a Voice reading the book in the background.

So, my conclusion is that while DRM has achieved some of the attributes of a physical book in the digital domain, it has failed strongly when it tries to balance the needs of legitimate Paying users and trying to stop Pirating users. This was an example of the ‘Seesaw Conundrum‘ that i was referring to earlier.

And the larger absurdity of the equation is that as long as Physical Books are in Sale, there are much easier ways to convert a pirated Ebook than to break a DRM code, or manually copy data from a licensed DRM encrypted Ebook. See below.

Potential_SourceFeeds_For_Pirated_Content

 

Audio* – You can locally download a song from a Saavn Server on an Ipad, if you are a Pro user, but cannot offload, like a non DRM’d music single .mp3 file.

Video** – Several YouTube and Google Play files can be cached locally on a device and played, but cannot be removed offline easily.

Voice Dream Reader*** – Under the ‘Book Share’ program, individuals like me are entitled to get limited access to Copyrighted books for a subsidized fee which can be read via the Voice Dream Reader app. I had sent them a link that i would prefer to register under my pseudonym and linked them to my Virtual world accounts, but i got no response. If i have to register my real name to get access, thank you very much. I get enough of Spam already and i have no frickin idea how my personal data will be used.

Four Basic Attributes of the Internet, that Piracy uses to its advantage..

The Internet was built on some basic principles, but as the Internet has grown widely into an alternate economic space rather than sheer exchange of 1s and 0s, some of these principles have come under threat, non necessarily always with evil intentions, but sometimes, since it has placed the economic survivability of some players. This aspect of the discussion is typically called as ‘Net Neutrality’, but its discussion is beyond the scope of this blog. For now, let us focus on some basic attributes that the Internet offers that Piracy is attempting to use to its advantage.

  1. Decentralisation – The Internet in its original form was always de-centralised. De-centralisation is a process where several people contribute towards a common work, and there typically is no differentiation between the contributors unlike a Traditional Top-Down Centralized Corporate Environment. We can learn some lessons about Internet Piracy and its complexity by looking at some of our own movies. For instance, how did Professor Ramana get caught eventually? Because, he ran a centralized network.                                                                                                                                              

  2. Open Source and Free Sharing Principles – It was Open Source principles that run a substantial portion of the Internet. Engines like Wikipedia and Mozilla FireFox are built entirely based on these principles. The Philosophy of Open Source is that anyone can take an existing work, build upon the work and offer the adapted work for free ( can commercialize the work sometimes). But, sometimes, this Principle does get abused in the case of Piracy, where allegedly Pirated Code of a website or Technology developed using Open Source Software is thrown openly on the Internet, to be adapted by several other Allegely Pirating websites. Although, technically, they are competitors, sometimes, they can also allegedly be ‘Partners in Crime’ as well.
  3. The Internet is like a Road Network – If the main highway connecting two cities is blocked due to a Traffic jam, people are diverted through alternate routes. But, by design of the Internet itself, a single chunk of information can be split up and travel through various routes, before the entire file is assembled at the receiving end. For better understanding, see the Animated GIF File here.
  4. No One owns anything in the Internet – The Internet belongs to no body. Virtually, every aspect of the Internet is given only a temporary usage rights or a common resource is shared across several people. An owner of a Website does not permanently own the URL of the website, He has to pay a fee for periodically renewing the website. There can be several people accessing a common IP address via a Public Wifi Hotspot, or Internally within a Home Wifi. There can be millions of users who use the same shared  hosting space etc.
    All of these principles are incorporated at various levels, to help Piracy continue the ‘Cat and Mouse’ game that has gone on for several years, and that is the reason, why the Internet Piracy menace has still continued to linger. Beyond just a question of a ‘Demand and Supply’ market, Piracy has used underlying principles and masked itself which makes things that much more difficult for law enforcement to catch up with it.

Why Piracy Happens? A Story In Pictures..

One of the (many)reasons, why Piracy happens.

Die_MannSchaft_Trailer

#2-Combined

Moral of the story : I can watch enjoy and support my favorite team when a much larger event like the FIFA world Cup happens in India, but I am not legally entitled to watch a legally made video ( a simple trailer in this case), well, (possibly) simply because the makers have not licensed it to be viewed in the World’s most legal Video watching website ( YouTube), when accessed from my country.

So, I need to watch this video now. Where else will I go?

P.S: Readers may also wish to read this story here, of legitimate FIFA partners going to court to stop Piracy when the FIFA world Cup was going on, a few months ago.