news.

You know what, I would download real money and food if I could.

I form part of the Conditional Access group in the MIH Media Lab. When I talk to people about my research, they go, “Oh, so you are basically trying to stop piracy? You know that’s impossible, right?” Ambitious, maybe. Impossible? I like to think not.

"Read the rest of this entry" for this image to make sense.

“Stopping piracy” is of course like “stopping crime.” You will never completely eliminate it, but you can bring crime down to a level where people are not afraid to walk around in the streets of a city. In much the same way, we want content providers to release their content onto media distribution platforms without worrying that it will be available for illegal download all over the internet the next day.

How not to do it.

To stop piracy, we need to develop a better understanding of why people are pirating movies, rather than just trying the “police-man” approach. For example, below is an anti-piracy commercial telling you that piracy is a big no-no.

I found the comments on this video (Figure 1)  quite telling.

Figure 1: Comments on the brilliant anti-piracty ad.

Looking at these  of this video we learn a few things:

  1. We wish we could download things that fast;
  2. These ads annoy paying customers;
  3. The soundtrack is a catchy tune and
  4. The girl in this commercial is pretty cute.

Points 3 and 4 may not look very relevant at first glance, but if we take a closer look, there’s a golden thread running through all these comments: We want entertainment and we want it now. Which brings me to my next point.

Even noodles are instant. Renting movies should also be.

From a convenience and instant gratification point of view, conventional movie rentals are actually the complete opposite of this what we want.
Let’s forget about cost for a second and just consider the convenience factor. Let’s say we want to watch a movie at 10pm. Which are you more likely to do: going down to a local DVD rental shop and renting a scratched DVD, or download something while making popcorn? I don’t know about you, but I have a unique skill to rent the most scratched and unplayable DVD in the store. I also end forgetting to return the thing the next day. We are not renting a car here, so I tend to forget.
Imagine a system that lets you watch what you want, when you want. Almost like your computer. Only legally and without the effort. This is what we need. In South Africa, not just in first world countries. While this would be great, there are a few challenges to overcome for something like this to work.

Bring the costs down

This seems like a no-brainer to most of us: bring down the cost of content in order to make more sales. We are seeing this happen in software on smart-phones and even operating systems, where people are making millions of dollars by selling $.99 applications. Take Angry Birds, for example, which is a $0.99 game, but considered to be one of the most profitable games ever. (Source)

So we can just apply the same thinking to movies, right? And with rentals, surely a on demand rental system should be able to offer rentals at the same, if not cheaper, price as brick-and-mortar DVD rental shops? You’d think so, but no.

Even in America, Apple started a movie rental service where you can rent a movie for $0.99. A few studios came on board to make their content available, but the other studios’ reactions are illustrated in Figure 2, citing the price as an “unacceptable devaluation of the content.” (Source)

Figure 2: The studios' response to the idea of lower-priced media. (Photo used with permission.)

Getting people to pay

I don’t really see this as such a huge problem. Maybe I was just talking to pessimistic people, but everyone goes, “Who would pay for such a service, especially in South Africa?” Well, people pay for DStv, right? The thing is that we don’t like spending R100 to watch a movie in our own home.
I’d much rather take the money I spend on DStv and put it towards a on demand system, but it needs to be affordable. A lot of people will be with me on this one, but for this to happen, studios need to “see the light” as Steve Jobs said. And that’s just America. The challenge to get content to South Africa is much bigger, but not our biggest problem.

9 days, 2 hours and 57 seconds remaining

From a technical point of view, the major challenge with an on-demand system is the fact that you need serious infrastructure to support it. When millions of viewers start streaming thousands of different movies and episodes, you can soon have a bottleneck somewhere.
As we discussed earlier, we want access to entertainment almost instantly and we hate the little dialog box shown in Figure 3. If you start waiting hours for content to reach you, the system will not be very successful.

Figure 3: The window we love to hate.

The problem with preventing slow transfers is that you not only need powerful servers to deliver the content, but you also need immense bandwidth for the servers to be able to get the content to everyone. While the bandwidth problem was solved for services like Netflix in America, this is not always the case. In a developing country like South Africa, we simply don’t have the bandwidth for these systems. It is clear that we need a different approach for on-demand systems in developing countries.

There’s hope

You might have noticed that I’ve not written much about conditional access. I’ll leave this for another blog post. The reason is that conditional access on it’s own is not very exciting by any stretch of the imagination, but what you can do with it is pretty cool.
The Media Lab developed a on-demand media distribution system which works much like a peer-to-peer network, rather than relying on a central server. This model is much more suited for environments where bandwidth is a rare commodity. However, thats just half the battle. In order to get the pandas on board, you need to ensure that the system is secure. This is where conditional access comes in. The challenge is to develop a secure system without annoying the legal users. If we succeed, we will have a system that is fast, secure and a pleasure to use. I have hope..

6 Comments

  1. 1
    El on Friday 03 June, 15:04 PM #

    Great post and i’m totally up for such a service.

    I am from Russia so i can’t tap into american services like Netflix, but we have our own Turbofilm.tv here which is pretty much what you discribed, only made by pirates.
    It’s a private service (you can’t register unless invited by a member) that offers a bunch of series from House M.D. to the Game of Thrones as a streaming video, in different quality and two languages (original english and russian translation).
    It was free at the launch and now has a time-based subscription you can pay off your mobile balance by sending a SMS. Different countries have different rates, for Russia it costs around 2$ per 21 day.

    The only downside that it’s not legal, because the videos are ripped off satellite broadcasts, that’s why the service has to stay private. From what i can see, a lot of people are using it, which means they are actually paying for streaming video instead of downloading it.
    And the fact that companies who created the pirated content aren’t getting any money off these people is not because these people are robbing anyone, but because these companies fail to deliver their own services, legal and affordable.

    I am right assuming that you live in South-African Republic? If it is so, i can invite you to register so you can test this service for yourself, for your research, because it’s available for SAR (with Cell-C, Vodacom and MTN cell providers).

    • 2
      daniel on Monday 15 August, 21:12 PM #

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      • 3
        daniel on Monday 15 August, 21:33 PM #

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        • 4
          daniel on Monday 15 August, 21:35 PM #

          One more replay :D

          • 5
            daniel on Monday 15 August, 21:37 PM #

            Last one

  2. 6
    El on Friday 03 June, 15:04 PM #

    Great post and i’m totally up for such a service.

    I am from Russia so i can’t tap into american services like Netflix, but we have our own Turbofilm.tv here which is pretty much what you discribed, only made by pirates.
    It’s a private service (you can’t register unless invited by a member) that offers a bunch of series from House M.D. to the Game of Thrones as a streaming video, in different quality and two languages (original english and russian translation).
    It was free at the launch and now has a time-based subscription you can pay off your mobile balance by sending a SMS. Different countries have different rates, for Russia it costs around 2$ per 21 day.

    The only downside that it’s not legal, because the videos are ripped off satellite broadcasts, that’s why the service has to stay private. From what i can see, a lot of people are using it, which means they are actually paying for streaming video instead of downloading it.
    And the fact that companies who created the pirated content aren’t getting any money off these people is not because these people are robbing anyone, but because these companies fail to deliver their own services, legal and affordable.

    I am right assuming that you live in South-African Republic? If it is so, i can invite you to register so you can test this service for yourself, for your research, because it’s available for SAR (with Cell-C, Vodacom and MTN cell providers).

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