The scenario painted by a Variety report on Comcast's new plans for an alternative -- or supplement -- to the Copyright Alert System and the six strikes rule currently being deployed point to a new direction in fighting piracy online.
Currently, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) send warnings to users when they are caught downloading copyright-protected content illegally online. Punishments are incurred at the sixth strike. That project, run by the Center for Copyright Information, whose membership includes the major media conglomerates, is largely seen as a band-aid to a problem that has few straight-forward solutions.
Comcast, which owns Universal Pictures and the television networks that operate under the NBC-Universal banner, is developing a system that would prompt users who are looking to download content illegally with a list of places where that content can be attained legally.
The project described in the Variety article is currently not deployed. Variety came to the story, supposedly, because Comcast is approaching its fellow conglomerates to see if they're enticed by the idea. A Comcast rep declined to comment on the Variety story.
What is interesting about this proposal is the assumptions it makes about people who download. For some Internet users, it's not too much to see downloading a rental from iTunes as a digital version of heading to the local strip mall to pick up a VHS or DVD at your local West Coast Video; for others, the Internet brings content to the consumer quickly -- and it's hard to know where to find a title. The Comcast plan either assumes the user who downloads doesn't know what vendor was offering the content or assumes the pop-up notification will scare or guilt users into paying for their content.
Many films, for instance, are only on one platform exclusively. This is the digital version of Blockbuster having an exclusive deal to rent or buy a film or video game -- a gimmick they used in their dying days as the leader in brick-and-mortar video and gaming stores. This is unpleasant for the consumer, and forces them to store passwords and credit cards with more retailers than they'd probably like. Many people who regularly stream digital content have subscriptions to various streaming platforms -- with or without a cable or satellite subscription; when content isn't on one of the many platforms they have access to, these super-users get frustrated. See the below cartoon from The Oatmeal to see one version of the legal streamer's own logic in trying to find legal content online.
It's also possible that Comcast and others think that users don't feel they're being surveilled enough to be afraid of pirating content. More intrusive pop-ups and notifications could instill different behaviors in digital viewers.
The Comcast deal, instead of focusing on threats and punishment, does emphasize availability. Pushing someone who anticipates getting free content to pay three of eight dollars for a digital copy of a film that may not be transferable to a new computer or device, not shareable with friends seems unlikely. If the notifications pointed users to streaming sites and reminded users how much content is available to stream with a subscription on any one site, that could point out vast libraries controlled by individual streamers.
As Variety points out, Comcast's Xfinity cable company is acquiring a substantial streaming library. How would a plan like this, a push to increase the number of streaming platforms and thus encourage consumers -- especially the most omnivorous viewers -- to subscribe to more and more services, pan out? Who are the winners and losers in the new war on piracy and the new competition in streaming services? More and more, it looks like the same old media companies are coming out on top.