Weekly News Roundup (5 July 2015)

July 5th, 2015

Welcome to the second half of 2015. It was a very quiet week news wise, at least on Digital Digest. Part of the reason is that a lot of streaming related news are now being published on my Streambly site, so feel free to follow it (on Facebook, Twitter and Google+) if you want to see more news stories, although of course, I will always include relevant stories from Streambly in this roundup.

So yesterday was the 4th of July, and normally that’s just another Saturday here in Australia, but here at Digital Digest HQ, celebrations were afoot. Yesterday was the 16th birthday of Digital Digest, first launched in 1999 as DVDDigest (clicky here to see what it looked like then). Personally, it’s been a great 16 years designing, creating and taking care of this site, and here’s to another 16 years!

Here’s the news for the week …

Copyright

A new piracy epidemic is happening in Norway, and it’s all because of an open source tool, at least according to rights-holder groups in the country. Norway was in the news a while back for having all but eliminated music piracy (thanks to iTunes, Spotify and other legal alternatives that people actually wanted to use), but at the same time, movie and TV piracy has been increasing, particularly streaming related piracy. This has the Rights Alliance Norway, an anti-piracy outfit from the country, blaming open source tool Popcorn Time for making it too easy for users to download and streaming movies. The Rights Alliance Norway is now threatening to sue people who use Popcorn Time, as well as ISPs who do not cooperate with blocking content.

Popcorn Time

Popcorn Time invasion in Norway causing increase in piracy rate, according to rights-holders

It’s quite disappointing to see this kind of reaction in Norway after the clear solution to the piracy problem has already been demonstrated successfully in regards to music piracy. Instead of blaming Napster or LimeWire and suing people who use these tools, iTunes and Spotify and others legal platforms helped to give people, those that weren’t willing to pay and those that were only willing to pay at the right price (and if they got to use the content in the way they wanted), another way to get their content. So the solution to the movie and TV piracy problem is simple – give the people what they want. Netflix is a good start, but it probably has less than 5 percent of the content that people actually want. There has to be a way to allow people to watch the latest TV shows, and movies, without forcing them to spend hundreds of dollars every month – something that people don’t see as good value (or simply can’t afford).

The problem has been identified. Now, we wait for the solution.

High Definition

Even though Netflix clearly doesn’t have close to enough of the sort of content people actually want, they do still have a lot of content. For me, people either pirate because they really want something and can’t afford it, or they’re after something they would never want to pay for, but still want to have a look. Netflix satisfies the latter of these demands, but barely touches the first (Netflix Originals do help).

Netflix Remote

Netflix’s popularity rising in markets outside of the U.S.

But still, being able to give people something random to watch when they’re not looking for anything specific can, and does help to reduce piracy, which is why Netflix is so popular. So popular in fact that by the year’s end, Netflix may have as many as 70 million subscribers worldwide. To put that number into perspective, despite HBO Now being one of the top 10 apps on the Apple App Store, it still only has about one million subscribers – which is actually a pretty decent start, but obviously nowhere near Netflix’s numbers.

Unsurprisingly, most of Netflix’s growth is happening outside of the US, with 9.6 million new subscribers expected by the end of 2015, up 57%. So while most Netflix subscribers are currently located in the U.S. (43.5 million), it’s only a matter of time before that’s no longer true (especially if Netflix’s launch in India, Japan and China are successful).

And it’s not just subscription video streaming that’s big business these days, thanks to Apple Music’s introduction, revenue from subscription music streaming is expected to become one-third of all consumer music spending by 2016 (it’s currently at 16%).

Smartphone Music Headphones

Listening to music on smartphones, and in offline mode, are main reasons people want to subscribe to Apple Music

While what Apple Music offers, compared to Spotify, isn’t all that new or better, but what Apple brings to the table is mainstream acceptance, and a large user base from its iTunes stores, a user base that the company is apparently willing to cannibalize. There will be many users that will switch from purchasing tracks on iTunes to unlimited streaming on Apple Music, which in the short term could actually cost Apple (and the music industry) money. But in the long term, subscription streaming is where music is headed, and it’s the only affordable way for users to get access (legally) to 30 million tracks.

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So that’s it for this not-so-special birthday edition of the WNR. See you next week!

Weekly News Roundup (28 June 2015)

June 28th, 2015

Not a very long WNR today, felt a bit too depressed while writing the two main copyright stories this week to write too much. But you have to admire the lobbying efforts of Hollywood – they have reach as far as Australia, and closer to (their) home, reach that’s powerful enough to cause massive disruption to how domain names work on the Internet. This is not what I’m depressed about though. No, it’s the way how efficient Hollywood can be at getting things done, and the fact that they’re doing all the wrong things, that’s making me feel like a sad panda today.

Still, as they say, the show must go on, and so here’s this week’s news stories.

Copyright

The MPAA is lobbying the Internet’s naming authority on changes that could make it easier for cyber criminals to steal the identity of businesses. It’s all part of the strategy by rights-holder groups to make it harder for domain registrants to protect their identities via domain privacy services. Groups like the MPAA says that this makes it more difficult for them to find information on the people who own domains linked to piracy, and the Internet’s naming authority, ICANN, appears to be buckling under the intense lobbying pressure to do something on this front. ICANN has released a report which proposes to ban domain privacy services for any domains used for commercial reasons.

While this would definitely make it easier for the MPAA to get domain ownership details, assuming the details aren’t faked (although ICANN has a rule that allows registrars to suspend domains if they suspect the details are fake), they can already do so easily via DMCA requests.

But by no longer allowing businesses to use domain privacy tools, digital rights groups and domain registrars say that it could allow cyber criminals to harvest domain data, which could lead to phishing attempts and even identity theft. Namecheap, one of the biggest domain registrars (and one of the good guys, who did a lot in protesting against SOPA), has also expressed concern about these proposed changes and have even mass emailed their own customers to ask them to try and stop these changes.

So once again we have the MPAA and their ilk trying to mess with the Internet, make it worse for everyone, just so they can have it a tiny bit easier time of it in their futile crusade against piracy.

Censorship

Australian government gives in to Hollywood demands for censorship

Speaking of futile, Australia’s parliament has passed controversial changes to copyright law that grants private companies the avenue to seek a nation-wide censorship of websites that they disagree with. Australia now joins a small exclusive club of countries that censors the Internet, all in the futile attempt to stop the piracy problem (without addressing issues such as availability and pricing).

To make matters worse, the language contained in the passed legislation is so vague, that I and many others fear that the law will be abused by private companies to their own end. The language says that website whose “primary” purpose is to “facilitate” piracy will be targeted, but these terms are not defined clearly enough, according to critics. The law could also be interpreted in a way that would be eventually used to target VPN providers.

In other words, the Australian government (with bi-partisan help from the opposition) has just given Hollywood what they want – we’ll see if blocking The Pirate Bay (a block that can be easily bypassed by anyone that cares), which will happen sooner rather than later, will have any effect on piracy without addressing the high pricing and poor legal availability of content in Australia.

High Definition

Dolby Vision

HDR promises to make everything brighter, better – but you need HDR content plus a 4K TV capable of displaying HDR

With 4K TV sets quickly approaching mainstream status, TV manufacturers are already on the look-out for the next best thing. And HDR, or high dynamic range, may be it. For those that don’t know, this essentially increases the difference between the minimum and maximum brightness in a scene, giving it a more dynamic (and therefore, better looking) picture. This involves both an encoding process to encode the movie with HDR information in it, as well as a display technology that produces TVs capable of displaying the increased dynamic range.

HDR capable TVs are still somewhat rare, and content is even rarer, although if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, you’re in luck, as they’ve just become the first streaming platform to offer HDR streaming, for free. It’s only limited to Amazon’s original series ‘Mozart in the Jungle’, for now, but you can bet the likes of Netflix won’t be far behind with their own HDR content (especially since the company has already stated the importance of HDR in the past).

Another first, but for another streaming platform. HBO Now is just starting out in the streaming game, but already, HBO’s standalone OTT product may be cutting its exclusive ties with the cable operators. HBO will air the tennis TV movie ‘7 Days in Hell’ on its own HBO Now platform before it airs on its cable channel. It’s become increasingly clear that streaming is fast approaching being a “first air” platform, rather than just showing left-overs from linear TV – it reflects the changing ways people are watching content these days.

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Well looks like that’s it for another week. Hope you’ve enjoyed this latest edition of the WNR, see you next week!

Weekly News Roundup (21 June 2015)

June 21st, 2015

Well E3 came and went, and both Sony and Microsoft had some great announcements, even if some were definitely way overdue (*cough*, DLNA support, *cough*), and even if some took everyone completely by surprise (*cough*, Xbox 360 backwards compatibility, *cough* – I really need to get this cough looked at).

I think I might have just spoiled some of this week’s news stories. Better this than having a key plot development in the Game of Thrones season finale being spoiled mid-episode while I was searching for background info on Meryn Trant on my phone – thanks a lot Variety! Don’t worry, while we talk a lot about Game of Thrones in this WNR, there won’t be any spoilers.

Copyright

Jon Snow

Even Jon Snow knows that Game of Thrones season finale equals new piracy record

WTF? Those familiar with Game of Thrones will also be familiar with this expression, and the season 5 finale was no different. While some of the twists and turns on the show come totally unexpected for the unsuspecting viewer (when it comes to guessing what fate will befall the truly honorable citizens of Westeros, and there aren’t many of those left, we’ve become more and more cynical I think), what was a total non surprise was the fact that a new piracy record has been broken again for the season finale, a record that was last set only a couple of weeks ago by another GoT episode.

But it’s not so much a case of more people downloading, and less people paying – ratings for the show are at a record too – it’s just that the show has become so popular that piracy inevitably goes up (and given the way the season 5 finale ended, expect the season 6 premier to break a couple of more records again).

For HBO, they definitely can do more to convert at least a small group of downloaders into paying customers, first by lowering the price of HBO Now, and by making it possible to watch new episodes via streaming in other parts of the world without having to be tied to a cable service (either by making HBO Now available, or selling the license to local streaming platforms).

But even if they do that, a large portion of the viewing public will still be downloading. Just take a look at the piracy problem with Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, despite Netflix’s ubiquity and low entry point when it comes to pricing, some will still pirate (and that some includes many who already pay for Netflix, but want a way to watch these episodes offline). So piracy will never be eliminated, but HBO can definitely do more to convince those willing to pay, to pay something.

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Google DMCA Stats

Google is profiting from piracy, according to the MPAA

Google’s pretty mad these days. At Mississippi State Attorney General Jim Hood and his MPAA backers, mainly. The search giant is finally using some of its massive cash reserves to hire a lawyers or a hundred to punish the MPAA, via Hood, for trying to mess with them (Hood tried to build case against Google, with the MPAA’s help, in a very clumsy attempt to bring back SOPA like legislation on the state level – but the Sony hack revealed all, forcing Google to on the legal offensive).

With Google winning in the courts against Hood, the search giant then started to target the puppetmasters, and when the MPAA refused to hand over internal documents, Google sued them too. The MPAA has just responded to Google’s lawsuit, and they really didn’t hold anything back. The MPAA accuses Google of both helping to facilitate and also profiting from piracy, and says Google’s lawsuit is nothing but a PR campaign.

Interesting, the MPAA argues that Google is trying to make them look bad by making public Hollywood’s anti-piracy strategy. I’m glad the MPAA finally agrees that their anti-piracy strategy is naturally unpopular, and that the truth is all you need to make them look bad!

Gaming

PS4 Media Player

PS4 finally getting a proper media player, with USB, DLNA and MKV support

Both Sony and Microsoft have had a good E3 (as for Nintendo …), but among Sony’s big PS4 announcements, the one that’s most interesting to me and probably to readers here would be the announcement of a new, proper, media player, for the company’s flagship console. Finally, we get back DLNA playback and USB media support, and as a bonus, we also now get native MKV playback too.

Better late than never, I suppose. And I can finally seriously consider replacing my PS3 with the PS4 as my hub of all things entertaining.

For Microsoft, their big surprise announcement was not something new, but something old. Or rather, backwards compatibility to allow you to play your old Xbox 360 games on the Xbox One. Insert your old Xbox 360 game disc, the 360 emulator will load up and you’ll be able to instantly play one of the 100 titles that are supported currently. Backwards compatibility also works with digital purchases too.

Xbox One's Xbox 360 Backward Compatibility

Xbox One’s Xbox 360 emulator in action

Not just a great bonus for Xbox One owners, it’s also a smart move by Microsoft. They have the data that shows many 360 owners are moving to the PS4 when upgrading to the next gen – by adding BC, it will ensure at least some of these users will more favorably view the Xbox One, even if just as a way to keep on playing their Xbox 360 games without having to buy a new 360.

The move has certainly surprised rivals Sony (and pretty much everyone else), but there are currently no plans to give PS3 backwards compatibility to the PS4 according to the Japanese tech giant. If Xbox 360 backwards compatibility proves to be a winner, sales wise, expect Sony to miraculously unveil their BC plans post haste.

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Bloody hell, Variety, why did you have to put all the major plot of the finale in your headlines? To be honest, even after I read it, I couldn’t believe it, and I still can’t believe it after I’ve seen it (it seems a lot of people are like me, in denial). If this is all very cryptic, it is, because this is a good website that don’t spoil things for unspecting people. Unlike Variety.

See you next week!

Weekly News Roundup (14 June 2015)

June 14th, 2015

Another week gone, and we’re mid way through June, which is mid-way through the year. 2015 has gone by pretty quickly, I have to say, maybe too quick at times. Much like this somewhat shorter than usual WNR, which I’m sure you’ll get through pretty quickly (maybe too quickly) too.

Here it is …

Copyright

EU Flag

The EU wants to remove copyright restrictions, which they say is encouraging piracy

The EU is pressing ahead with its plans reform copyright laws, to make it fairer to consumers and remove many of the restrictions that exist within EU countries. The European Commission VP in charge of this new copyright strategy, dubbed the Digital Single Market, says that current copyright laws allows rights-holders to place restrictions on legal content, restrictions that Andrus Ansip says are driving people to piracy.

Instead of tougher laws that punish downloaders, something that Ansip says is untenable (68% of film viewers in the EU download pirated movies – “to put 68% of people in jail is not really a good idea,” says Ansip), he wants legislation that encourages the spread of legal content, even if it means banning things like geo-blocking within EU countries.

It’s something rights-holders won’t like. While all EU countries use the same currency, the wealth disparity between EU countries means that citizens in one country may be able to afford to pay more for the same content, than citizens in another country. It’s this wealth disparity that Big Content likes to exploit, by making sure they squeeze as much as possible out of each paying customer. In the worst case, an entire platform, like Spotify, could end not not being available in some countries due to these kind of artificial barriers.

So while the EU is clearly moving into the direction that brings better access to content, Big Content is heading in the other direction, still pushing ahead with content blocking to solve the piracy problem. The latest strategy involves getting domain registrars involved in the process, but Big Content is finding that it’s meeting some resistance from ICANN, the non-profit responsible for managing domain names. The ICANN says it refuses to be copyright cops, to police content, simply because it’s responsibilities simply does not extend to content. Pointing domain names to servers is basically what the domain naming system is all about – it should not matter to ICANN at least what the domain name is, and what server it is pointing to. Just because it’s easier to force registrars to do something about piracy (as opposed to going after the owners of the website), doesn’t make it right.

Gaming

Steam logo

Are users abusing Steam’s new refund system?

By finally making refunds available, Steam seems to have finally listened to customers, and it also represents a major step in the right direction in terms of digital consumer rights. However, it appears some users at least have started to abuse the refund system, which promises refunds, no questions asked, within 14 days of purchase as long as you’ve played less than two hours in the game (which describes about 95% of my Steam game library, by the way).

Some indie game developers are reporting refund rates of up to 72%, meaning more than 2 in 3 users bought the game, played it, and then got their money back. While this might indicate some kind of problem with the game, most of the time, the heavily refunded games still receive positive ratings from gamers.

This means that people may be using the refund system to play games without paying, at least for up to two hours (which while probably not enough to finish the game, but might be enough for many users). With Steam not even asking users why they’re seeking a refund, the system does sound like one that’s maybe too biased towards the consumers, something that rarely happens with digital goods.

The problem has become so bad, that some developers are even thinking of adding DRM to their game, something that they would never have considered in the past. And this is a development that benefits nobody, really.

There has to be a middle ground though, one that gives consumers the same rights with digital goods as they have with physical goods, but also ensures that people cannot abuse it as a way to play games without paying.

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Xbox One PC Adapter

PC Adapter for Xbox One controller finally available, getting ready for Windows 10 game streaming

The NPD report for US video game sales in May has been released, and the PS4 is back on top after temporarily handing over the crown to the Xbox One in April. While Xbox One sales were up on this time last year, it just couldn’t sell enough units to beat the PS4, which but for a few months here and there (admittedly during some important months, such as during the holiday sales period), has been on top pretty much this entire generation.

Things might stay the same in June again though, despite Microsoft releasing a new 1 TB version of the console (and permanently dropping the price of the 512 GB version to $349). What may have a slightly bigger effect on Xbox One sales, eventually, might happen after the release of Windows 10. With built-in game streaming support (with the ability to stream Xbox One games to any Windows 10 device, be it your PC, laptop or Surface tablet), the new operating system from Microsoft will aim to further unify the Windows and Xbox platforms. So the release of a wireless PC adapter for the Xbox One controller comes just at the right time.

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Alright, that’s that for the week. Have a good one!

Weekly News Roundup (7 June 2015)

June 7th, 2015

I never thought I would see unskippable ads and auto-play promos on Netflix, but that’s exactly what I saw this week. I’ve never really understood why networks still need to advertise themselves, especially for established shows like Orange is the New Black. It feels like preaching to the converted, as the only people who don’t know about Orange is the New Black are people who just don’t want to watch it, and no amount of advertising is going to change that fact.

Not a huge amount of news this week, but still a few interesting ones, including the one about Netflix ads.

Copyright

Piracy is Stealing?

Piracy is helpful to Netflix, while using VPNs to access it is stealing according media boss

There is now a greater acceptance of the view that regardless of you think should be done about piracy, it is here and it is something that cannot be ignored or simply maginalised (as something done by “criminals”). Instead of trying to eliminate it completely, the reality is that piracy is here to stay, and that it is just like any other market force that needs to be accounted for. New tech companies like Netflix and Spotify have long realised this paradigm, and have made their services competitive as a result – traditional firms like most Hollywood studios and recording labels, have not, and has suffered as a result.

But according to Netflix, it’s just not about competing with piracy – it’s also about using piracy to its advantage. According to Netflix boss Reed Hastings, piracy teaches users to get used to streaming videos online, which makes it easier for Netflix to convince these same users to sign up. These users are already likely to have high bandwidth or unlimited bandwidth accounts, which makes it one less hurdle for them to make the switch to Netflix.

It’s this kind of positive thinking and willingness to adapt that’s behind the success of companies like Netflix and Hulu. Those that don’t want to accept the paradigm shift, and instead uses technological and legal solutions to maintain the status quo, are the ones that will ultimately lose out in the end.

Interestingly, Hastings also explains why when Netflix comes to a new country (such as Australia), it’s catalogue of titles is so crap. Apparently, it’s easier to negotiate for content only if that region’s Netflix has a high number of subscribers. I don’t know who made this particular hoop for Netflix to jump through, but it just goes to show the problems associated with the current licensing regime (too expensive, too restrictive, and too convoluted).

VPNReactor

Is using a VPN to access US Netflix in Canada that much different to shopping at Amazon.com instead of Amazon.ca?

It’s these convoluted hoops that ensures one region’s Netflix is better or worse than another region’s, despite there being perhaps very little geographical distance between the two regions. Let’s say between Canada and the US (or between Toronto and Detroit). This kind of content inequality has made many Canadian Netflix users sign up to VPN or smart DNS services so they can access the US Netflix library, which features much more content (although personally I find that Canada has better movie releases, sometimes), including the daughter of new Canadian Bell Media boss Mary Ann Turcke.

But instead of seeing the content inequality as a problem (and perhaps as an opportunity as well), Turcke, the boss of an old media firm, sees this as “theft” and, on a personal note, has put a stop to her daughter’s “stealing”. And in Turcke’s mind, the solution is to not adapt to what users want, but instead, to tell those users they’re wrong, they’re criminals, and that what they’re doing is “unacceptable” – users including her own daughter!

With this kind of mindset, it’s no wonder old media has been so unsuccessful at adapting to user demands in the Internet age, and why they have allowed innovative companies like Apple, Netflix and Spotify to take over core parts of their business. When you see “new” as “bad”, then this is the inevitable outcome.

High Definition

Meanwhile, do not be concerned that Netflix has started showing ads. It’s only ads for its own original shows, but they’re unskippable (at least the one I saw, for Orange is the New Black), and the worry is that this will be expanded one day to include third-party ads. Netflix has been quick to reassure users that this won’t be the case, but Netflix ads or third party ones, they’re all annoying, especially if they’re unskippable.

Hopefully, this will be one of those things that Netflix test from time to time, but never makes it as a regular feature, especially if most users are like me and don’t view these changes favourably.

Gaming

PS4 with controller and PS Eye

The new PS4 models should look pretty much like the old ones, but only on the outside

A new PS4 model with a 1TB hard-drive may be available sometime this year, and may be announced as soon as E3 in two week’s time. But the new PS4 won’t be the much anticipated “slim” model, as the FCC filings which revealed the new PS4 models show that dimensions of the console has remained the same.

What has changed however is the power requirement, from 250 watts to 230 watts, suggesting that new fabrication process for the PS4 hardware is now ready, which may lead to a price cut too.

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That’s it for another week, hope you enjoyed this one. See you in seven!


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