Hey, Movie Studios: You Can't Force Us To Love You

Published in Online Spin, February 5, 2016.

A long, long time ago, when CDs and MP3s were still a thing, I decided to make a compilation of songs as a holiday gift to my customers. Although Napster beckoned, I didn’t want to steal the music, so I set about trying to purchase it legitimately.

Immediately, I ran into a few hurdles. I didn’t want to buy a whole CD for each song I wanted to include, so I was limited to individual downloads, but I did want to pay fairly for each copy I was making. Turns out the download services at the time -- in what could be argued was a customer-centric effort to treat people fairly -- wouldn't let you pay for a song more than once.

“You’ve already downloaded this,” they told me. “It’s in your library.” “I know that,” I complained, to my disinterested CRT monitor. “I’m trying to buy more copies.”

No luck. They had clearly never anticipated that someone would reside in the Venn intersection of “making multiple copies of a compilation” and “actually wanting to pay for each copy.”

Eventually, I found a service that let me buy songs without registering -- meaning I could buy as many copies as I wanted. But I was left disheartened. Why would they make it so difficult? I wasn’t alone in this; according to Wikipedia, “Steve Jobs [had] expressed concern that people were illegally obtaining music because it was the only option they had.”

The iTunes store opened on April 28, 2003. In just five years it became the largest music vendor in the United States, proving Jobs right: It’s not that people wanted to steal, it was just so darn hard to be law-abiding and so freaking easy to grab a free MP3 off a file-sharing service. The message was clear: If you make it easy for us to pay, we’ll pay.

A simple message. And yet, here we are, eight years later, and the movie industry never got the memo. Despite the borderless nature of the Internet, and the ease with which just about anything can be torrented, studios are still trying to enforce archaic country-by-country geographic rights restrictions.

In New Zealand, where I live, so many people were trying to access Netflix that the website of one of our major ISPs housed a tutorial on setting up a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, to get around geographic restrictions.

But now even that is being taken away from them. Last week, thousands of “Orange-Is-The-New-Black”-lovers found themselves bereft, when Netflix started blocking people who were using VPNs to access the service.

Take note: this time around, the public isn’t trying to steal content. They’re trying to buy it -- but, to do so, they have to pretend to be from somewhere else. And that, apparently, is not acceptable.

To be clear, I don’t think this is Netflix’s fault. In the company blog post written prior to the crackdown, Netflix rep David Fullagar said, “We are making progress in licensing content across the world and, as of last week, now offer the Netflix service in 190 countries, but we have a ways to go before we can offer people the same films and TV series everywhere... For now, given the historic practice of licensing content by geographic territories, the TV shows and movies we offer differ, to varying degrees, by territory. In the meantime, we will continue to respect and enforce content licensing by geographic location.”

It’s not us, they’re saying. It’s the historic licensing agreements. Agreements designed for a time when film was made of nitrate and delivered by courier. But today, it’s the easiest thing in the world to steal content. Is it really wise to make it harder for the folks who are willing to pay?