Do we even really need a Censor Board, anymore? 

The Censor Board is again in the news today, for failing to certify a film, ‘Lipstick Under my Barkha’, which its boss Pankaj Nihalani, believes cannot be fit in its three pre-defined categories of certification- ‘U’, ‘U/A’ and ‘A’. The film, therefore remains uncertified. Not too long ago, a similar issue erupted, when a film maker had to eventually go to court, to over ride, several cuts recommended by the Censor Board.

When the Decks were all set for the film’s release, a shocking thing happened. The film suffered an attack of ‘pre-release piracy’. There were even suspicions raised about the print being a ‘For Censor Board’ copy. There have been similar reports, suspicions and allegations surrounding for South Indian films like ‘Premam’ and ‘Papanasam’ as well, but this post deals with the relevance of the functions of the Censor Board, in a modern Digital ubiquitiously internet accessible world.

The origins of the Censor Board in India can be traced to times of Pre-Independence. At that time, India was divided into several presidencies like The Nizam, Travancore Dynasties, Madras Presidency, Bengal Presidency and so on. Each of these independent presidencies had their own independent admistrative agencies, typically, under the blessings of the British.

So, if a Film made at that time, had to be shown over the country, it meant that it had to be certified multiple times. This presented a peculiar problem. A film could be certified for viewing in one presidency, yet could be deemed ‘unfit’ in another.

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A 1938 Censor Board certificate of the Telugu Film – ‘Malla Pilla’ issued by the Madras Board of Censors. The Film was directed by G.Ramabhramam. 

In the year 1949, Independent India setup up a ‘film enquiry committee’ under the auspices of Bombay’s then Mayor, S.K. Patil. The commitee which in its member board consisted of ace Film Makers like B.N.Sircar and V.Shantaram. It also consisted of representatives of the I.C.S ( The body under Information and Broadcasting Wing). The group toured the country and met various stake holders in the country and took their feedback and presented a report titled ‘Report of the Film Enquiry Committee 1951’.

Some of the committee’s recommendations which were eventually implemented were :

  1. Setting up of a body to preserve film Heritage. This body later became the NFAI.
  2. Setting up of a training institute for Actors and technicians aspiring to be part of the Film industry. This body was what became FTII, Pune. ( There was an independent Training institute in Madras which was set up by the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce. Some of the successful graduates of this institute were Actor Rajinikanth and Chiranjeevi).
  3. Setting up of the first local ‘Raw film’ research and Manufacturing Factory in Ooty. Prior to this Raw films had to be imported and were very expensive.
  4. Having a unified Censor Board, across the nation.

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A Recertified Censor Board Certificate for the Film ‘Ratha Kaneer’ issued by the CBFC.

The validity of the Censor Board certificate was originally meant for only 5 years. It was later extended to 10 years. This means, that every 10 years, a film maker would have to get his film recertified, a totally absurd procedure that has thankfully been done away with.

Censor Certificates of the films Kutty(2001 Janaki Viswanathan) and Thotaal Thodarum (2014 Cable Shankar). The Certificates provide more details about the Censorship process and have done away with the expiry-period of the certificate.

Although Newer forms of Technology for information like the ‘Radio’ and “Television’ evolved, the Censor Board continued to hold its relevance. Not only did Cinema reign supreme in its mass appeal in the ‘Entertainment’ sector, but its other competitors had to follow a ‘code of conduct’, for disseminating information. A channel which wished to broadcast ‘Video’ ( Television) or ‘Audio’ ( Radio) had to get a license in order to obtain ‘radio spectrum’ to transmit their signals. This meant that they were bound by ‘rules’, and they had to be responsible for the infomration which they broadcasted. So, an organization like the Censor Board continued to have ‘functional sense’, until till about a decade ago.

Up and until this time, people were still used to a traditional ‘uni directional’ flow of information. But the growth of the internet brought focus on the bi-directional aspect of the Internet. Not only could users now demand content, at a time of their choosing, but now they could be a part of the system. They could now create content but also share them to the world (upload), something that had not been a part of mankind.

It is in today’s new digital landscape that the ‘function’ of the censor board needs to be addressed. What is the role of the ‘Censor Board’? Every minute, 300 hours of video is uploaded on YouTube, alone. If one even conservatively assumes that this sums up 50% of global uploads ( Commercial Digital content, new user content created, remixed , modified, and shared), then we roughly have about tonnes of data, represented in 600 hours of video, as a function of ‘bandwidth ‘and ‘storage’.

So, there is no way that we can have a body that can physically monitor so much content, even if it had the accessibility. And this rate of content generation only continues to grow. The second aspect is that this content is constantly shared, modified and re-shared. Each of the users on the Internet today :- receive, consume and share. In this flood of ‘rapid information exchange’, in most cases, the ‘creator’ and the ‘last mile user’ analogy has changed totally.


The second aspect is that ‘any form of content’ is so easy to access. At a click of a button, pornography is accessible. Pirated and Infringing content is accessible. Most websites don’t even use the mock ‘Click here to Enter if you are above 18, else leave’. It is just pointless.

So, now we come to the scenario, where a content creator who wishes to disseminate his information under the traditional model, has to subject his rights of ‘freedom of expression’ to a group of individuals who may have a different moral code of conduct, and may choose to apply the scissors, whereas, disseminating in the parallel much larger internet world, need not have to go through the knife. The same aspects come from the viewers point of view, as well. Barring the ‘monetary’ aspects, there seems to be a huge mismatch.

The second aspect of the question, is, what are the powers of a Censor Board in ‘reality’? There have been umpteen instances, when a film, which has been ‘Certified for Public Viewing’ has been held up allegedly by ‘miscreants’ or by those who have used the ‘publicity’ for their own benefits. The Censor Board has been able to do nothing, in these cases.

The Censor Board continues to play an important role, but its role has been severely limited by technological advances, and at times, rendering it redundant, when seen holistically from a view point of society. May be, it is time, that an entire upheaval of the vintage body happens, in connection with the times.

 

 

 

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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?

​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. 

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.

‘Revenue Enhancer’ Modes Vs ‘Piracy Beater’ Modes

“Spotify really does not compete with Itunes, or with these retail store based services. Spotify directly competes with piracy, we are capturing users out of a piracy based environment and provide them unlimited access of music at their finger tips. They could share and sample music for free.” – Sean Parker, Spotify.

Piracy and online downloads had already deconstructed the album. You couldn’t compete with piracy unless you sold the songs individually. ” – Steve Jobs.

We live in times, where ‘Media Piracy‘ has become a definite ‘Way of life’. The Copyright Industry may not like it, but that is the way, it is. In fact, I’d like to think that ‘Piracy’ is one of the important issues that have emerged, evolved and continues to exist (or resist enforcement) as an important subset of the ‘Open Ecosystem‘ and ‘Digital Economy‘ of contemporary times. That may also be the reason, where you will find a lot of posts associated with ‘Media Piracy’ and ‘Copyright Infringement’ in this blog. It is also one of the main points of focus of my research.

There are two types of approaches used by Copyright Holders to generate returns and address the problem of Piracy – ‘Revenue Enhancer Modes‘ and ‘Piracy Beater Modes‘.( I don’t know if these terminologies have been coined by someone else, but in any case, I think that the names are quite apt.) Revenue Enhancer Modes typically are typically used to maximize profits, while Piracy Beater Modes are used to minimize losses. A Revenue Enhancer mode typically has little or no impact on Piracy, while a Piracy beater mode, if successfully scaled in ‘quantity sold/user views’ can cumulatively become a Revenue Enhancer.

Any business model or legitimate service that typically charges money for the consumption of legitimate copyrighted media content, without having a sizable impact on piracy (or no impact) is called a Revenue Enhancer. A business model or legitimate service that may or may not charge money directly from the user for consumption of legit copyright media, but which has the potential to disrupt the Pirates market is called a Piracy Beater. For e.g Selling a single music album ( consisting of 5 or 6 songs) in Itunes for Rs.100-120 can be called a Revenue Enhancer Mode, where as music subscription services that allow users to listen to music for free on the Internet and allow them to download Unlimited songs/albums for offline hearing at Rs.100-120/month for listening like Saavn, Gaana and Airtel’s Wynk can be an example for Piracy Beater modes.

A legitimate movie disc being sold locally for Rs.30 is an example of a piracy beater but when the same movie is provided online digitally to be viewed at a cost of Rs.30,  it is more equivalent to a Revenue Enhancer mode. This differentiation in understanding is important because a physical pirated disc costs Rs.20-30 whereas an online piracy service does not charge the customer any money at all, atleast not directly. So, when a legit provider provides a service online even for as low as Rs.25, it should be considered as a Revenue Enhancer mode. 

PiracyBeatersVsRevenueEnhancers

In today’s times, when the life span of a movie has shrunk down badly, Revenue Enhancers are best employed in the nascent stages of a movie or in the immediate aftermath of a music album’s release. After a certain point in time, ( typically days or weeks, or a month at max for a successful movie) returns from Revenue Enhancer modes start to shrink down. It is during the period of a revenue Enhancer that ‘Anti Piracy‘ activities or ‘Promotional‘ activities for a movie are also at their peak. Once the nascent time period is over, Piracy Beater modes start to become active. Revenue Enhancer modes typically fade into the background, while Piracy beater modes slowly take over. The arrival of Piracy Beater modes co-insides with slowly reducing PR activities and also declining Anti Piracy operations.

Revenue Enhancer Modes try to maximize revenue on a ‘Per Person basis’ while Piracy beater modes attempt to monetize on a ‘Mass Scale‘. More over, Legitimate revenue enhancer modes tend to leave possibilities (unavoidable in a modern Digital World) that can be exploited for infringers or Pirates. ( I plan to do a seperate post on this statement). Attempting to exploit PiracyBeater modes for such digital loop holes yield no additional benefits of any kind and are there fore logically irrelevant.

Revenue Enhancer Modes typically have no competition with Piracy beater modes, although Piracy Beater modes may compete with Revenue Enhancer Modes. For e.g a Legitimate copy of a movie can be seen freely on Youtube. If the same movie is available on other paid platforms like Google Play/Movies or Itunes, most users who have watched the movie for free on Youtube are less likely to watch the movie on the pay to watch services.

Thalaiva_PiracyBeater-RevenueEnhancer

One possible exemption to this broad characteristics of Revenue Enhancers and Piracy Beaters might be quick, first time broadcast of new cinema on private satellite TV. These days, first Broadcast on TV typically happens within 1 or 2 months, from the first theatrical release. Traditionally in the pre Internet years, a Tamil movie would be broadcast after a period of 2 years**. There was some sort of a minimum time period back then. With the advent of digital internet piracy, it simply doesn’t make sense to delay broadcast of a movie for so long. More over, in such a spurious environment, where every day gets delayed, the chances of the potential broadcast viewer seeing the movie, through a pirated disc simply increases.

So, modern day broadcast combines the best features of both modes. It attempts to generate revenue by ‘scaling in numbers’, ‘supported by advertisements’, which from the viewer’s point of view is like a Piracy Beater mode*, yet is done as soon as possible, now typically within weeks of a movie launch in Theatres, making it appear like a Revenue Enhancer mode, from the perspective of a Copyright holder.

*Unlike viewing a movie on an Internet service like Youtube, where advertisments are minimal, and the user experience is not disturbed, watching a movie on TV can be quite painful, considering the number of advertisements, played between the movie. No matter what the quality improvements, Broadcast TV it cannot compete with Piracy on the ‘uninterrupted’ front.

** Back in those days, the AD intro would sound, “Indhiya Tholaikaatchigalil mudhan murayaga”. These days it sounds “Thiraikku Vandha Sila Maadhangalile..”