To Stream or Not to Stream: Copyright Infringement and You

We've all done it. We finally finished studying for the day and want to relax so we navigate to our go-to streaming site and type in the name of our favorite show. "Maybe I'll catch up on New Girl tonight, or re-watch Breaking Bad because I still can't get over how crazy that final episode was..."

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  1. In the digital age, cable television companies have struggled to combat the illegal streaming of their content in cyberspace. Many, and perhaps even you, have used a website similar to the one below in order to watch popular television shows for free. This curation—created by Matthew Chan, Anthony James, and Theolisa Williams—discusses the popularity behind live or recorded video streaming over the Internet and the ways broadcasting companies have attempted to combat this seemingly illegal practice.
  2. In order to be informed of the issues linking online streaming and copyright infringement, there are some fundamental concepts that should first be understood. Below is a concise video that explains the basics behind this process.
  3. Seems simple, right? But, does that mean that it is illegal? In a way yes, but in another it could easily be considered a response to a system set towards criminalizing user-based content sharing. So just exactly how do websites similar to 'Project Free TV' manage to avoid being taken down by the FBI for linking to free streams of television shows? The key, Sternbenz’s argues in the following article, is that these websites are essentially "acting as a search engine" for links that are "embedded from a secondary website"that hosts their content on an entirely separate server. While this is different from directly downloading media files from a 'Peer to Peer' (P2P) sharing network, streaming websites have been able to avoid legal repercussions by providing a "linking" service to end-users. If the server containing the copied material is taken down, then websites like 'Project Free TV' will simply provide a different link to a secondary host site.
  4. Because these free streaming websites simply aggregate links to copyrighted content located on separate servers, they technically do not violate copyright laws. The article below is a statement by the U.S. Copyright Office suggesting that Congress update the laws to adapt to issues of copyright in the digital age. The U.S. Copyright Office oversees copyright claims on TV, books, movies, and many other works. In this statement, Maria Pallante writes, "unauthorized access to streamed content grew by 13 million separate users per month during 2010, to 105 million separate users per month." This illustrates the increasing issues copyright law must contend with as streaming technology improves, and how lawmakers should redefine its definitions and perhaps consider that these aggregate websites are indeed infringing on intellectual property rights.
  5. While lawmakers are updating copyright laws, television companies in the meantime have tried finding new ways to prevent the illegal streaming of their content. In order to combat illegal streaming, companies need to understand why users feel the need to disregard paying for cable to watch movies and shows in real time instead of subscribing to more reliable sites like Hulu or Netflix. In a theoatmeal.com comic, that humorously puts this topic of debate into perspective, illustrator and social commentator Matthew Inman portrays a situation some cable show fans may have found themselves in at one time or another (Content Warning: Mature Language):
  6. This Oatmeal comic suggests that users do want to pay cable companies like HBO in exchange for their content. The NPR article below links to an interview with Wired.com writer Graeme McMillan. McMillan argues that some viewers would purchase a season of Game of Thrones from HBO if they were given the choice and uses a petition known as "Take My Money HBO" as an example. However, the issue remains that in order to sign up for streaming services, the viewer must have a cable subscription. This deters viewers from using legitimate sources of streaming and instead to use free sites and access copyrighted content. According to McMillan, however, the "concern is in order to stay competitive with other streaming services, [HBO] would have to have a low price point for streaming, which would undercut the cable subscription." Therefore, there is a conflict between combating piracy and retaining its cable television customer base.
  7. In an attempt to contest the prevalence of free online streaming of television shows, HBO has recently launch its own $15 online subscription streaming service called HBO Now. Now that HBO is available online, viewers have easier access to shows and are more likely to pay a monthly fee than pirate or watch illegal streams. However, Paul Tassi in the Forbes piece below shows that free streaming and piracy of HBO's content is still on the rise despite this service upgrade. Tassi writes that the "buffering, stuttering, and occasionally, outright crashes" diminishes the experience of HBO Now. He notes that this forces viewers to choose the more convenient route of downloading or streaming an episode of HBO's Game of Thrones for free instead of using a sub-par service that costs money. The question is whether increasing the quality of HBO Now or decreasing its subscription cost will perturb illegal streaming and piracy. Tassi suggests that this may be an effective strategy in combating piracy, but only time will tell if it actually works.
  8. However, should cable companies such as HBO be concerned about Internet piracy and illegal streaming of their content? In another Forbes article written by Paul Tassi, HBO seems to be complacent about viewers illegally streaming its content. Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner that owns HBO, explains that piracy and illegal streaming "leads to more penetration, more paying subs, more health for HBO, less reliance on having to do paid advertising". This suggests that piracy and illegal streaming is healthy for cable television companies by providing free advertising and distribution of their content to people and places that do not have access to their services. Instead of fighting piracy and illegal streaming—a task that is almost impossible—cable television companies adapt benefits from the advantages that they can bring.
  9. Interestingly enough, most would even say that the piracy of Game of Thrones added to the popularity of the TV show. Basically speaking, the piracy of the show is seen as a compliment to HBO, and HBO CEO Michael Lombardo claimed that it did not take away from the DVD sales, so it is more of a "win-win" scenario than most viewers and people believe. This adds to the discussion of streaming and piracy as a whole though. For example, is the leaking of an artist's new album a gift or a curse? On one hand, the artist gets exposure and this can be extremely beneficial to an amateur or "up and coming" artist. On the other hand, the artist will lose money that would have otherwise been generated from normal album sales. This concept is the same when discussing the Game of Thrones illegal streams, but Lombardo claims that the loss of DVD sales is not enough to cause alarm, and actually seems like more of a compliment on the show's popularity.
  10. As improvements in streaming capabilities progresses in the future, cable television companies will face more issues with illegal streaming and piracy of their rightful intellectual property. Companies such as HBO have started to provide online streaming to improve access to their content but these services are still in their infancy, unable to compete with free streaming sites already in existence. Furthermore, HBO has adapted and utilized piracy and illegal streaming to their advantage as they provide avenues for free advertising and expansion of viewership. Yet, the ways companies deal with piracy in the future may change, so in the in the meantime, sit back, relax, and enjoy an online stream of your favorite TV show.
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