Tag Archives: content

Streaming’s not evil

Stream, Steve Bowbrick

Cory Doctorow’s got this wrong. He’s having one of those slightly hysterical moments that only someone who really understands technology can have. The technically naive idea that streaming and downloading are different things has got him all wound up: “But they’re the same thing! They’re the same thing!” I can almost see him stamping his feet.

Of course they’re the same thing. But they’re conceptually different. And that’s enough to make the distinction descriptively useful. It may be a pretty fragile distinction but it’s not nonsense. There is a meaningful difference between enjoying content in real-time, as an experience, right now and storing it away forever – as a kind of horde of potential experiences.

And the thing is, the business of storing content away forever is in no way ideal. It’s a persistent idea but it’s obviously an anachronism – one we’ve carried over from all those millennia of atom hording. My record collection is now effectively infinite (or at least exactly identical to the entire corpus of recorded music) but that doesn’t mean I want it all on a hard drive in my house. In fact, there’s an absurdity exactly analogous to Cory’s 777 one (the crazy image of everyone on a plane streaming the same content at the same time) in the idea that we’ll all want to download and store away a slice of all the content ever made on separate hard drives in separate computers in separate houses.

Pissing away bandwidth on multiple identical streams may offend the geek sensibility but so does duplicating millions of tracks billions of times when it’s all available as an experience out there somewhere.

And Cory’s privacy and freedom arguments are flawed too. Since we’ve established that downloading and streaming are the same thing, it’s very difficult to argue that one is inherently more benign than the other. I’d go so far as to say that it’s perfectly possible to imagine a ‘good’ streaming protocol that masks identity, tracks nothing and permits proper downloading if you want it. Just as it’s possible to imagine a nasty perversion of downloading that transmits inside-leg measurements to the NSA or whatever.

Enough. I don’t usually do this. I think I reacted to Cory’s article because I recognised in it something of my own geeky absolutism. I often want to yell “but they’re the same thing” into the ether too.

Big bogus ratio

Anti-piracy people are fond of citing the big ratio. They’re talking about the ratio of paid-for music downloads to non-paid-for (i.e. stolen) music downloads. They like the big ratio because it makes things look really bad for the content industry – it dramatises the narrative. Here it is again, in the FT, quoted by Salamander Davoudi and Tim Bradshaw:

For every track bought online, 20 were downloaded illegally last year, according to IFPI, the international music industry lobby group

But the big ratio is, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, utterly misleading.

When they say: “look. N times as many tracks were downloaded illegally as legally. It’s a tsunami, a cataclysm, an [insert apocalyptic noun here].” they’re making a category error. They’re comparing different categories of behaviour: different because each is conditioned by a different price.

There’s no meaningful comparison. Tracks downloaded for nothing are not the same as tracks downloaded at a price. Stuff that can be acquired for nothing is wholly different from stuff that has to be paid for.

Here the wheelbarrow principle applies: if you hear that Tesco’s are selling tins of beans for nothing you’re going to leave the string bag at home and show up with a wheelbarrow. If the works of James Brown are available for nothing you’re not going to download the Best of… You’re going to download all of it. Discrimination, in zero price-world, is redundant. And, of course, that’s not to say that discrimination doesn’t happen any more or even that downloaders don’t practice it. It does and they do. Just not at the point of sale.

And meanwhile, the record labels continue to lean on the big ratio, a bogus comparator that doesn’t help us understand the behaviour of music downloaders and can’t help us measure the crisis for the content industry.

Freeing content at the BBC

I had a bit of a whinge over at Speechification earlier on about the BBC’s content archiving policy. I find it frustrating to say the least that Heather Couper’s epic history of astronomy, Cosmic Quest, which has been running on Radio 4 since May, will now be withdrawn from the public domain all together.

The BBC’s standard line here—and it’s not an unreasonable one—is that the Corporation can only afford to buy ‘first run’ or otherwise limited rights to shows like Cosmic Quest and that if it was obliged to pay for ‘in perpetuity’ rights the additional cost would block the purchase of other good stuff and thus ultimately limit the choice provided to licence-fee payers.

This is undoubtedly true but also defeatist and essentially an inadequate response to the changing imperatives of the network era. The BBC needs to be braver and more committed to change. Here are a few things that could and should be done to unlock more good content for public use:

The BBC should free access to content that has limited (or zero) secondary value. That’s not to say content that’s no good: just stuff that can’t easily be sold on or exploited after it’s been transmitted. Lionel Kellaway’s brilliant Radio 4 programme about Rooks (a favourite of mine) is an asset of great beauty and immeasurable value to its listeners but, let’s face it, hardly any value in an open marketplace for audio content.

The BBC should be a rights innovator: hybrid methods of preserving public access to assets and commercial value to creators and license-holders should be developed and tested on real content. Not easy and not possible without compromise on both sides but the Corporation is uniquely placed to drive innovation that’s beneficial to UK licence fee-payers.

The BBC should be a copyright activist. Legislators should be lobbied to help redesign copyright law to preserve access to orphaned assets: content that’s not being exploited but can’t be freed because it still has a nominal owner. The Corporation should fund work to design use-it-or-lose-it laws and other innovative devices that emphasise access and public benefit over predatory and unfair protection.

The BBC should set targets for freeing content. By defining and prioritising categories of assets that should be freed, the BBC could drive the accumulation of a big pool of useful material held in the public domain permanently. Announcing in advance that certain content categories—perhaps whole channels or strands—are in future going to be purchased for permanent public access would encourage creators to get on with it and adjust their pricing and commercial terms for the new climate.

The goal should be to define and then grow the pool of free-to-use, public domain content archived at bbc.co.uk and not to apologise for the inflexibility and intransigence of rights-holders and exploiters. The potential gain for UK Plc and UK citizens could be enormous. The “there’s nothing we can do about it , guv” response must be made a thing of the past.