Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Scratching My Underbelly

I am a criminal. I've broken the law. I must be punished. When they come for me, I won't put up a fight. I won't leap out the window, or try to disguise myself as an indoor palm. I will go peacefully, and I will do my time in prison and pray that my deserved incarceration relieves me of the rancid, crippling guilt that infects my very being.

I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway. I couldn't stop myself. I read that pirated copies of the brilliant Australian true-crime TV series Underbelly were up on The Pirate Bay and available for download. And I downloaded them. Not just the three episodes already screened, but this week's episode, and next week's and the week after.

Not only did I watch them, I told others where to score a hit for themselves.

I am a criminal. But I'm not alone. So when I go to prison, I might run into some of the "tens of thousands of Australians (who) have risked a prison term and hefty fines" to illegally download Underbelly episodes. At least we'll all have something to talk about.

All the controversy about Underbelly began a few weeks back when Supreme Court judge Justice Betty King issued a suppression order to stop the show being screened on TV in Victoria. Rightly, Justice King decided the TV series might prejudice a murder trial connected with the gangsters slightly fictionalised in Underbelly.

The problem, of course, is that television is now only one of the many ways people can watch a show. Despite the ban, tens of thousands in Victoria have now seen Underbelly, online, on bootleg DVDs, as MP4 files on their iPods, at Underbelly home parties and in the pubs that have been brave enough to screen the copies flooding in across the border (and online).

But :

Downloading TV show and movies from the internet is illegal under Australian copyright law and anyone caught with copies risks up to five years jail and fines of up to $60,500.

Anyone caught distributing or selling copyrighted footage of Underbelly could be charged with contempt of court.

A spokeswoman for Channel 9 said the network would take legal action against anyone caught downloading or distributing its prized program.

Can you imagine Channel 9 pursuing legal action against anyone for downloading Underbelly? If Channel 9 tried to jail tens of thousands of its viewers for five years, the outrage would be voluminous and fantastic, and deeply embarrassing for anyone connected with Channel 9.

And how much would it cost them to pursue legal action "against anyone" who has made an illegal copy of Underbelly? And for what result? To publicly prove just how behind the times Channel 9 is? To reveal just how out of touch they are with so much of their primary audience, who already watch many hours of TV shows online, and ongadget, each week?

Is it not my fault, or your fault, that Channel 9 is still locked in the 20th century, and insists on drip-feeding its latest series to a hungry audience who would mostly buy all the episodes in one go, for a reasonable price, if only they were made available now.

And it's not like this revolution in how great swathes of Australia' youth, and under 40s, now watch TV has come out of the blue. The old guard of TV knew online video was coming, but they wanted to cling to the old model they knew so well - "we show it and you watch it when we want you to" - even as advertising dollars slipped away, first in a trickle and now (literally) in a torrent.

Nobody should have to watch their favourite shows at a set time, on a chosen night, if they don't want to. What is this? The 1950s?

Video taping allows for a fair bit of freedom, but the technology is there for buying (without ads) TV shows you want to watch, a whole series at once (if it's been made), that you can then view on your wall screen, your laptop, your portable video player, your phone, when you want to. That television channels and studios haven't already introduced a delivery and payment system as simple and convenient as paying for cable TV by direct debit is their problem, not ours. They are behind the marketplace. They are not meeting marketplace demands

That is their fault, and their problem, not yours.

People will pay to watch their favourite shows (without ads) as long as the means of getting the show downloaded and into digital possession is straightforward, as easy as scoring a ringtone.

It's that simple.

If your favourite fruit shop won't have mangoes for a week, and a shop down the road is giving them away, are you expected to go away and wait?


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So why didn't Channel 9 foresee that there would be a huge market for Underbelly on digital download, or even DVD, once a few episodes had been aired on commercial TV. Why isn't there, at the very least, a box set of Underbelly already for sale in JB HiFi?

It's not your fault, or mine, that they are so lacking in vision that they did not know their market well enough to realise they could have flogged 30,000 or 50,000 box sets of Underbelly off the back of the enormous publicity and interest the show has already generated.

I'm not downloading un-aired episodes of Underbelly because I want to steal from Channel 9 or the show's producers. I just don't want to have to wait a week for another 40 minutes of Underbelly, and I don't want to endure all those fucking commercials.

If it was available for paid download right now, I'd pay.

When Underbelly is released as a DVD box set, I'll buy a copy for my library, and I'll buy a copy for my brother as a Christmas present (if it's out before Christmas), even if I do watch all episodes online (illegally) for free.

That's what 20th century TV networks like Channel 9 don't understand. Just because you watched something for free, doesn't mean you won't also go and buy a hard copy of it, if the packaging and poster and booklet are decent enough.

Why this ridiculous delay between first airing and selling a digital version?

It already seems bizarre that a movie like There Will Be Blood is in cinemas, will disappear for a few months and then not show up on DVD until May or June, if not later. There may be a download you can buy when it's in rental stores, but why can't you buy a copy of it for your wall screen, lap top, or phone right now? Tonight? When interest in it is at its peak?

The reason why tens of thousands of people in Australia are downloading episodes of Underbelly, and illegal copies of There Will Be Blood, right now is not because they don't want to pay to watch it. They just don't want to wait to watch it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

From news.com.au :

"This is a great problem on the internet," said University of NSW Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre executive director David Vaile.

"Legal jurisdiction is typically limited by geography, and by its nature the internet doesn't place much regard to geography."

Mr Vaile believed Justice King may have taken into consideration the possibility that copies of the drama would appear on the internet, but that it would have limited impact on potential jurors.

"(She) may well have decided that something that is not the official publisher's website will not have the same sort of impact," he said.

However watching illegal versions of the underworld drama will not be without risk.

Mr Vaile said people caught uploading clips from Underbelly could face copyright and contempt of court charges.

"There is potential in some circumstances for that order to render people in contempt," Mr Vaile said.

He added that despite the belief that the internet provides anonymity, authorities would be able to track down any culprits.

"There is a false perception around that activity on the internet is anonymous or that's untraceable. Unfortunately, the opposite is the case," Mr Vaile said.

Which is why I'm confessing to my criminal behaviour here and now. I did it. I downloaded illegal copies of Underbelly, and I watched them on my laptop. I'm not sorry. I will do it again, and again, unless I'm stopped.

I'm waiting for the police to come and arrest me. Channel 9 said they would do me for my crimes. Here I am.

I don't know how many hours of freedom I have left, but I will....oh, wait. Someone's just uploaded Underbelly Episode 7 to The Pirate Bay.

Now I've got something new to watch while I wait for justice to be delivered upon me.

Hopefully I can blog from prison.