An open letter to Ed Vaizey

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Categories Current Events, Politics

Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, has been engaged in a Twitter debate all evening about today’s decision by the High Court in favour of the movie industries in their attempt to force BT (and, potentially, other ISPs) to block access to Newzbin. This is what I would have written in response, had Twitter allowed me more than 140 characters at a time:

Dear Ed,

I appreciate the fact that you’ve taken the time to engage in the debate. But I have to take issue with your assertion that there are already suitable legal services for those who want to get movies online. As you tweeted earlier in the evening:

“@cyberdoyle: #deact RT @nickg_UK The thing which will stop piracy is legal access to movie downloads at reasonable prices. ”<try lovefilm

Lovefilm, of course, is a successful company which provides DVD rental and movie streaming. Their most expensive package, at £9.99 a month, offers unlimited streaming of anything other than premium movies.

So why not switch to it instead of Newzbin? Well, it isn’t because of cost. I asked some of my friends who use Newzbin and similar services how much it costs them. Here are two responses:

Off the top of my head, something like 30p per week. I also pay something like 18 USD per month for usenet access from someone entirely unrelated.

I’d happily pay the same, or more, for a service that provided the same level of usefulness and convenience with slightly less legal dubiousness.

I pay $9.99/month for my Usenet access on Supernews. I have about 100GB bought with Newsdemon for the articles that Supernews occasionally sometimes doesn’t have, so I don’t have to get PAR files.

If these two are in any way representative, that means the typical Newzbin user is paying more to get at their movies than the cost of a Lovefilm subscription. So why do it? Why not just use Lovefilm?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course. The reason people will pay for Usenet+Newzbin is that they want to be able to obtain movies in a format that suits them, not a format which suits the provider. They want to be able to download them and watch them whenever they want, not have to be online in order to stream them (assuming, of course, they’ve got enough bandwidth to stream movies anyway). They want a download service that gives them the same ownership and flexibility as buying DVDs. And they want to be able to obtain the movies they want to see without artificial geographic restrictions.

So, apart from the fact that it simply isn’t true that services such as Lovefilm are a suitable solution, it’s pretty clear that there’s a whole untapped market here for legitimate online purchase of movies via download. People are willing to pay, and willing to pay a fair amount – provided that what they get in return is what they want.

At the moment, the only people making any money out of this market are those involved in infringement. As long as the movie industry maintains its outdated business practices and carries on treating its (potential) customers as the enemy, that’s how it will stay. Blocking Newzbin may result in a short-term drop in the number of people getting movies via Usenet, but it won’t lead to an increase in people getting them via legitimate means until there are suitable alternatives which provide the same level of convenience and functionality.

Contrary to popular belief, most people who “pirate” movies are not doing it for financial reasons. They’re doing it simply because nobody is offering them a product that they want to buy. If you really want to see the creative industries flourishing in the UK, then the first step is to make the UK a place which is friendly to online innovation. Newzbin could be a legal service, earning money for the content creators, if it was allowed to be. The real question is, will the government support such innovation or continue to be complicit in the anti-entrepreneur attitude of the traditional companies?

Frankly, I’m disappointed that a Conservative-led coalition could take this attitude. Back in March this year, the Prime Minister announced the ‘StartUp Britain’ initiative aimed at encouraging people to start their own businesses. As he said at the time,

There are thousands of people out there who are entrepreneurs but they just don’t know it yet. There are millions of success stories that haven’t been written yet.

It’s time for the government to take that promise seriously when it comes to the creative industries and the Internet. We need to start supporting the innovators, rather than supporting business practices designed to lock them out of competition with the multi-million businesses.

As a member of the Conservatives, and a Conservative councillor, it pains me that most of the running in this area is being made by those on the left of the political spectrum – something which itself is hugely ironic, given that much of our current legislation, such as the Digital Economy Act, is a result of the previous Labour administration’s illiberality and preference for toadying up with media moguls rather than seeking to meet the needs of the consumer and innovator.

I’m not expecting instant changes in policy. But a recognition that we need to change would be a good start. Is there any chance of that happening?


Mark Goodge

  • Geoff

    Well said.

  • LindseyAnnison

    I don’t use any of the online services, paid, legal or otherwise, because my rural so-called broadband connection makes it impossible to download films unless you have way too much time on your hands to faff around trying to do so. The Lovefilm streaming option Ed Vaizey suggested we all look at tonight is simply not an option in much of the rural UK.

    We still have a local Blockbusters store because far too many people are in the same boat on dial up or atrocious broadband, but it’s a 40mile round trip (same as to the cinema) so it’s difficult to make a case for renting/watching a film when money is tight and fuel is £1.45 a litre. The Mobile Library has stopped stocking DVDs because apparently the County Council believes we can all download films, so it is no longer possible to rent them from there either. Hence our offline options are pretty limited, and we can’t afford Sky+.This family’s problem is not one of choosing pirated versions over a paid service; it is not having the communications infrastructure in rural Britain to make ANY choice over how we get movies online now our offline choices have been decimated. 

    • chris conder

      Same here. I don’t watch movies anyway, but I have friends who do, and they say its far easier to torrent them than anything else, because they can leave a torrent running for days and it picks up where it left off if they have disconnections. That way they get a movie to watch at weekend. Rural broadband is the pits.

    • I own quite a few devices and they either don’t render the streaming LoveFilm service (iPhones don’t play Flash) or the quality of image is just tragic compared to Blu-Ray.

      The only concession I can make is that it’s a work in progress and one day I’ll see streaming video provided by them that matches the versatility and quality that you can achieve in other less legitimate ways.

      • That’s the big problem with streaming, of course. Unless you have a very fast connection, it has to be compressed in order to be able to watch it in real time without stuttering. Downloading is far more suitable for large files, such as films, as you can leave the download running as long as it takes and then watch the film once you have the file. Systems such as BitTtorrent which automatically resume broken transfers are ideal in this respect as you can leave them alone as long as necessary – go to work in the morning with the torrent running while you’re out, and when you get home there’s a film for you to watch in the evening.

  • Whilst I agree with your points about motivations for piracy I’m not sure Ed Vaizy’s linking of the two issues is especially helpful to begin with… it seems to suggest that copyright theft is legitimate when the ability to purchase it legally isn’t available / convenient…. “Yes officer, I did ram-raid the corner shop, but you see it was 3am and all the shops were shut”

    That’s not to say the government shouldn’t be supporting innovation and entrepreneurs in this area, but they should be doing it to create new markets, not to limit the movie industry’s imagined losses.
    Also, as a side issue, I now demand BT and all other ISPs block access to websites that enable all other forms of crime… starting with eBay where a chap never sent that thing I bought. I’d also like them to filter my email for me to determine which offers from African princes are genuine and which aren’t.

  • I’ve saved about £500 by stopping buying DVDs and Blu-Rays since January by using LoveFilm instead.  Their most expensive package is quite a bit higher than £9.99/month, by the way.  The maths behind this saving is artificial of course as I wouldn’t have actually spent £500.  It’s like every single figure I’ve seen put out by the “creative industries” about the money they have lost to piracy.  Can’t be trusted.  What I do believe though is that they have undue influence over government policy.  Rather than lead by example offering innovative digital services they prefer to bring everyone down into the mire.

  • Joolsw28