Weekly News Roundup (December 11, 2016)

December 11th, 2016

From nothing to almost too much, this week’s Weekly News Roundup has one ingredient sorely missing from last week’s edition – namely news!

So let’s not waste any more time and dive right into it …

Copyright

YouTube Targeted

YouTube says they’re unfairly being targeted by the music industry despite handing over a billion dollars to them over the last 12 months

Google has produced the numbers to show that, far from being a place where freeloaders gather to get free music (especially ones of pirated origins), YouTube is actually putting a lot of money into the pockets of the music industry. One billion in the last 12 months, to be exact. And this is just ad-revenue from legally uploaded videos and from pirated uploads via Content ID.

You might think the music industry, and some of music’s most well known, and richest stars, might be satisfied with this. But they’re not. They say growth in free music is outpacing growth in revenue from ads and subscriptions, and they’re worried that falling track and album sales will start to hurt in the near future.

They might be right, but it’s not because of piracy or YouTube even. It does feel like the music industry may be in transition again, so soon after the last one from physical CD album sales to digital tracks. The new transition, and it’s something Google is saying as well (and giving the music industry an advanced warning on), is one from sales to subscription/advertising. The last transition has dramatically downgraded the financial fortunes of the music industry, and this new transition may hurt them again. It is a bit of a shame, but this is the free-market, and the market always decides what things are worth.

If music lovers decide that music should be subscription based, or ad-supported but free to listen, and they decide that it’s no longer in their interest to pay the current price for tracks, then that’s bad luck for the music industry. Unless they want government policy to offer special protection to the industry – and I don’t see how it’s fair to give them protection at the expense of other industries – then it’s something that Sony, Warner, Universal and EMI, and stars like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, will have to learn to live with. They will argue that this will end the music industry, and mean less music being produced, but that would only be true if all musicians are getting into the game just for the money.

In fact, with self publishing easier than it’s ever been, and with YouTube promising to put more resources into promoting the stars of tomorrow, the future of music still looks bright, even if it means the likes of Taylor Swift may have to settle for earnings of $30 million per year, instead of $73 million.

Also looking bright are the prospects of Iceland’s Pirate Party governing the Nordic island nation. The president of the country has allowed the Pirate Party, who came third in recent elections, the chance to form government after the two biggest parties failed to build a workable coalition. Now, the chance of Iceland actually being ruled by a coalition headed by the Pirates appears to be slim, since it will need the support of one of the two bigger parties, and if this was a possibility, it would have happened already. Instead, Icelanders may have to go back to the polls and see if a fresh round of elections can produce an outright winner.

But still, it highlights just how popular the Pirates are doing in the country. It is after all the anti-establishment choice for Iceland, and the recent trend away from the establishment has definitely helped them. Anti-establishment doesn’t always have to mean islamaphobia, xenophobia and electing people with un-explainable hair, and the Pirates do have some solid policies, not to mention it’s refugee-welcoming policies (73% of Icelanders say the country should accept more refugees).

High Definition

Movie Cinema Tickets

Cinema chains will not be happy if Apple’s plans become reality

Not being afraid to change things around is usually a recipe for success. Sometimes I’m a bit harsh on Hollywood when it comes to all things copyright, but often though, it’s not the studios that are resistant to change, but others in the industry. So when Apple and some of the biggest studios are meeting to discuss a way for people who prefer to watch the newest blockbusters not at the cinemas but in their homes, the resistance comes from cinema chains.

To be fair, they have valid concerns. If movies are also made available to view at home during the theatrical window, then cinemas will definitely lose money. How much depends on how much people value the cinematic experience, but with price gouging when it comes to the concession stand, and often sub-standard presentations that can’t match the clarity and aural experience of a well set up home cinema, the cinematic experience definitely has room to improve.

What could happen though is a deal which sees cinema chains get a cut of profits from this kind of premium, fast-tracked home viewing, in exchange for giving up their exclusive rights to screenings. The last thing the studios want is for cinema chains to launch some kind of protest, which ends up having films like Deadpool 2 getting boycotted at release.

For Apple though, the equation is very simple – a faster release equals more money by helping to serve a currently under-served (or really, un-served) market.

Netflix Downloads

Netflix’s download mode uses a new codec to improve quality without increasing file size

This is probably how Netflix came to the decision to copy Amazon, erm I mean, to come up on their own with the innovative idea of adding downloads to a streaming service. There’s probably not a lot of people that will use the download feature, but there are situations (no Wi-Fi, on a plane, etc…) where downloading is definitely required – so an under-served area becomes served, and everyone is happy.

But that’s not why I wanted to bring up Netflix’s download mode this week. The reason is that now we know a bit more about the technical side of Netflix’s implementation, and so this kind of stuff is right up my alley. A long time supporter for H.264 AVC, Netflix is actually using Google’s VP9 for downloads. At least for selected platforms that natively support VP9, namely Android.

Compared to using the AVC-Main profile, Netflix’s use of VP9-Mobile could actually save up to 36% in terms of bandwidth, for the same perceivable quality. Netflix is also using per-chunk optimization for its encodings, which splits the movie into 1-3 minute segments and then applying a different encoding setting for each chunk, to further minimize file size.

But minimizing file size isn’t Netflix’s only goal, it can also use these enhancements to improve the quality of downloads by keeping the files at the same size, which is that the company is doing with its downloads. And since downloads are currently only supported by a limited number of devices, Netflix are free to experiment with new encoding techniques without running into problems with backwards compatibility. It’s a good idea all around.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Big Sleeve Edition

Laserdisc makes a comeback, sort of

Speaking of good ideas, and in particularly if you’re stressing about finding a cool Christmas gift idea, how about this. Nostalgia is a thing this holiday (eg. Nintendo Classic), so why not bring back laserdiscs, without actually bringing it back. These laserdisc sized Blu-ray “Big Sleeve Editions” from Disney is obviously another cynical attempt at double-dipping, but they are also very attractive looking packages for that film fan friend or family member that already appears to have everything. They’re only available in the UK at the moment, but don’t be surprised to see it elsewhere in the future.

In Ultra HD Blu-ray news, it does speak to the current state of PCs (and possibly the paranoid copyright culture) that despite the availability of a $299 Ultra HD Blu-ray player in the form of the excellent value Xbox One S, you still can’t play UHD discs on your PC because of the lack of available hardware and software.

But the situations appears to be getting better, with Intel, Nvidia and AMD all working hard to produce new hardware that enables and accelerates UHD playback, and on the software front, Cyberlink has just announced that PowerDVD has received official UHD Blu-ray certification, meaning UHD playback will be coming in 2017.

To get the best out of UHD, you’ll probably end up needing a new CPU, GPU, optical drive and monitor (so basically an entirely new PC), at considerable cost. That $299 Xbox One S is starting to look mighty tempting.

Once things start rolling on the PC UHD Blu-ray front, I might just write a guide on how you can build the cheapest possible UHD capable system that can get the best out of UHD.

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Well, that was a good news week, and I didn’t even have to resort to fake news. Alright, no more blabbering from me. See you next week!

Weekly News Roundup (December 4, 2016)

December 4th, 2016

Welcome to another edition of the Weekly News Roundup. A new week has definitely passed, but unfortunately, due to Thanksgiving probably and me being busy with other stuff, there’s not much to talk about (or more precisely, there’s no news to talk about at all).

So instead, I’ll use this blank canvas to ramble incoherently about DVD, Blu-ray and 4K sales, as a preview to my yearly Blu-ray: The State of Play series.

Regular readers will know that I’ve been keeping track of weekly U.S. Blu-ray and DVD sales numbers for quite a few years now, and every year, I write the “State of Play” to summarise how the year went in terms of sales, and looks at trends. Even though we are without probably the best weeks of the year in terms of sales, I thought I would offer a preview of what the year has been like so far for Blu-ray sales.

Ultra HD Blu-ray Logo

Is Ultra HD Blu-ray helping total disc sales?

It’s an important year because a new Blu-ray format, Ultra HD Blu-ray, was introduced, and the popularization of streaming continued unabated. So it’s important to take a look to see if discs are still a thing that people want. More importantly, has 4K had a positive effect on the format (considering that 4K UHD Blu-ray sales are counted as Blu-ray sales in the stats I provide weekly).

Looking at the stats, the short answer is yes, 4K has helped Blu-ray record a turn-around!

2015 was not a good year for discs, and not a good year for Blu-ray. Blu-ray revenue had declined for the second year running, and it certainly appears that “peak Blu-ray” or even “peak disc”, where the peak for Blu-ray/disc sales, had already been reached some time in 2013.

But 2016 is turning out to be quite different, at least for the first 47 weeks so far of the year, and the turning point came in March, when the first Ultra HD Blu-ray discs were released.

Let me go into some more detail for you. Of the 52 weeks in 2015, thirty weeks (that’s close to 58% of the weeks) had a Blu-ray revenue result that was lower than the same week in 2014, compared to 22 weeks (42%) that had recorded a rise in Blu-ray revenue.

Deadpool on Ultra HD Blu-ray

Studios aren’t shy to bring their biggest hits to UHD Blu-ray

For 2016 so far, it has reversed, where 21 weeks (45%) were worse compared to 26 weeks (55%) that were better. Looking at the same time period (the first 47 weeks) in 2015, Blu-ray revenue was 7.6% lower than the same period in 2014, but comparing 2016 to 2015, Blu-ray revenue is now up 2.3%. That’s what I call a turnaround!

Now looking at the first 11 weeks of 2016 that did not include any Ultra HD Blu-ray sales, 6 of these weeks were worse than the same weeks in 2016, only 5 were better. Revenue for this period had fallen 6.1% compared to a year ago.

So in other words, before Ultra HD Blu-ray, revenue was falling at about the same rate as in 2015, but since then, revenue has actually risen. Ultra HD Blu-ray has had a very positive effect on Blu-ray sales.

None of this should be a surprise for those that have been following the WNR. I’ve mentioned many times that studios have been very proactive in releasing titles on UHD Blu-ray, and that the UHD version is selling quite well given how new the format it (it frequently beats the 3D version of the same film). And studios are only keen to push UHD because there are lots of households already with 4K, thanks to a lower than expect price premium to upgrade to the format (relatively speaking, of course).

Now with that said, the final few weeks of 2016 could still change things around, depending on how receptive people are to Ultra HD Blu-ray during this crucial sales period. But given that the Xbox One S is expected to sell very well in the U.S. during the holidays, and the Xbox One S includes an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, it’s quite possible the sales growth will actually intensify during the next few weeks.

We’ll have to wait a few more weeks before I can confirm were Blu-ray revenue will end up, and even if my hypothesis is correct and that 4K is helping sales, it’s hard to tell if this boost is just a temporary one on the transition away from discs.

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More news (or some news) next week, I promise. Have a good one!

Weekly News Roundup (November 27, 2016)

November 27th, 2016

So how did your Black Friday shopping go? Found a few bargains, or did you refuse to buy in to the hype? One thing I’ve noticed that the phenomenon, for better or worse, seems to be spreading to other countries, including here in Australia. I guess retailers don’t really need another excuse to have a big sale, but if you want to find out more about just what Black Friday really means for retail, have a look at this (super long) infographic, provided to us courtesy of FreeshippingCode.com.

As for the news this week, we have a nice mix of stories for you that will make you happy, angry, and informed.

Copyright

PlayReady 3.0

Netflix 4K requires hardware based DRM, which means most PCs won’t be supported

Starting with the angry, this DRM story will definitely get your blood boiling, especially if you’ve just recently upgraded your PC (and you didn’t choose the latest Intel ‘Kaby Lake’ CPU). Your PC may be more than fast enough for 4K video, but you probably won’t be able to play Netflix in 4K, thanks to the sky-high (or rather, higher than Skylake) hardware requirements. Thanks to Hollywood’s paranoia, Netflix 4K requires PlayReady 3.0 DRM, which is only supported by Windows 10 at the moment. And also only by the practically ignored Edge browser. And also only supported by Intel’s latest generation ‘Kaby Lake’ CPUs.

Miss out any of these requirements, and you’re shit out of luck. Even if you purchased a 10-series Nvidia graphics card that supposedly supports PlayReady 3.0 and HEVC 10-bit accelerated decoding, you’re still SOL, because Netflix’s implementation currently doesn’t work this these cards.

Thanks a bunch, DRM.

With that said, the incompatibility with Nvidia cards at the moment may only be temporary and can probably be addressed with a software update. And if you don’t have the latest Nvidia card, then you probably do want a Kaby Lake CPU for Netflix 4K, as it supports accelerated HEVC 10-bit decoding. As for Edge, well, it’s and inoffensive choice while we want for Netflix to update their Windows app.

Still, DRM, what a pain in the hole!

4shared

4shared can’t understand why rights-holders are wasting time submitting “bogus” take-down requests to Google

Speaking of pains in the hole, 4shared has spoken of their own pain at seeing rights-holders waste their time filing Google DMCA take-down requests, many of which are bogus, when the file sharing site has a perfectly good anti-piracy tool at their disposal.

4shared says that rights-holders are wasting money hiring anti-piracy agencies that produce bogus take-down requests using nothing but a simplistic bot script to crawl their site for links, sometimes based on broad keywords such as ‘video’. At best, this results in links being removed from Google’s search results, but the page itself still exists on 4shared, meaning rights-holders are wasting their time.

Despite 4shared pleading with rights-holders and their agents to use the site’s own anti-piracy tool, the same rights-holders have dobbed 4shared in to the authorities, arguing that it’s a “notorious” piracy site that should be shut down. As I theorized a couple of weeks before, rights-holders may be holding off on using 4shared’s tool because they may be looking at suing the site in the future, and any “cooperation” with the site now could hamper these efforts.

Netflix Remote

Netflix helping to combat piracy much more effectively than DRM or new laws

But you know what they could do? Instead of obsessing over links and downloads, maybe, just maybe, the solution is already here. Affordable legal options, such as Netflix and Spotify, are already helping to reduce piracy, and the latest report from Australia confirms this.

It’s worth remembering that Netflix and Spotify, especially the former, aren’t perfect. In fact, there’s still way too much content that you can’t find on legal platforms, unless you’re willing to pay through the roof (and be limited in where and how to play the content). If rights-holder can be more committed to bringing in more value to consumers, then piracy can be reduced by a great deal. It will never be completely abolished though, as some people will never or cannot pay for content, but these people have always existed and in the absence of piracy, they simply consumed less content or none at all.

I get it. Rights-holders want their cake (ie. being able to charge the maximum for content) and eat it too (not having piracy), but that’s just not realistic. Their business model is effectively one where they put out an overpriced product and then force users to accept it via technical and legal measures. And it’s easy to see why consumers are choosing to go down a different route, whether this is piracy or Netflix.

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That’s it for the week. Hope you smiled, frowned and otherwise felt informed enough to feel that reading this week’s WNR wasn’t such a waste of time. See you next week!

Weekly News Roundup (November 20, 2016)

November 20th, 2016

Welcome to another week here on the Weekly News Roundup. Hope everything’s been well? Having Trump-tastically good week or a Trump-sasterously bad one? Having a nice Trump-eekend, on a nice Trump-day (every day is a Trump-day)? Sorry, but we’ve been forced to make some changes here at WNR HQ by President-Elect Trump, so this is how things are now.

It was a good week in terms of news though, in that there were some interesting ones and ones that are away from the usual copyright related bore-fest that fills the WNR all far too often.

Copyright

HDMI Connector

Sony’s buggy firmware, or did HDMI’s nasty DRM HDCP strike again?

I know it’s kind of weird to continue on from the last sentence by bringing you a copyright related story, but this one actually has a little bit of everything in relation to what we usually cover here in the WNR. The new super duper 4K PS4 Pro (gaming – check!) has hit a snatch thanks to a potentially buggy firmware update, that, possibly due to annoying DRM (copyright – check!), causes the console to output nothing but a blank screen (digital video – check!).

Those with selected TVs (especially the older, but 4K variety) and who intend to upgrade to 4.05 may need to hold off (4.06 is out, but it doesn’t fix this issue), or follow the workaround I linked to in the news story, as a potential bug in the HDMI copy protection scheme HDCP may be causing a blank display for some. The workaround involves going into the PS4’s Safe Mode and changing the output to HDMI 1.4, or turning off HDCP entirely.

A proper fix in the form of another firmware update is expected to hit the PS4 eventually, so it’s a good thing that the PS4 allows you to turn off HDCP (primarily used to capture gaming footage), even though this means you’ll not be able to play most videos (Blu-ray, Netflix, etc…) due to the fact that Hollywood is extremely paranoid.

High Definition

You still won’t be able to play Ultra HD Blu-ray movies on the PS4 Pro though, because Sony missed a really big opportunity to market the PS4 Pro as the ultimate 4K machine, not just for gaming, but also for video (that is, until the Xbox One Scorpio arrives). I can understand if Sony wanted to remain more profitable (or less lossy) by not including a new UHD drive in the PS4 Slim, but it just doesn’t make much sense to skip it for the PS4 Pro, especially considering Sony the studio is actually quite active in releasing movies on Ultra HD Blu-ray, and that Sony the consumer electronics firm is bit lacking in the Ultra HD Blu-ray standalone department.

Ultra HD Blu-ray Logo

Ultra HD Blu-ray is a hit with consumers …

And it’s a shame, because UHD Blu-ray actually appears to be doing quite well, better than Blu-ray was at the same time in its release cycle. Over 1 million UHD discs have already been sold in the U.S., and that’s before the format has had its first Holiday sales season even.

For those that follows my weekly Blu-ray/DVD sales analysis, it’s easy to see that studios have (for the most part – Disney, I’m looking at you!) embraced Ultra HD Blu-ray – most new releases, even some you might consider as minor ones, are getting the UHD treatment, many also getting HDR too. Prices are higher, but not astronomical for a new format. Consumer electronics firms have also contributed by ensuring the premium for 4K TVs is mainly due to the increased screen size (and decreased depth) – smaller 4KTVs are actually quite affordable given how new the format is. So with plenty of new content, and affordable hardware, it’s easy to see why the format is doing well.

Gaming

PS4 Slim and PS4 Pro

… so why didn’t the two new PS4s include playback when the Xbox One S did?

Which brings me back to my earlier point about the PS4 Pro’s lack of UHD Blu-ray support being such a missed opportunity. Sony’s wrong turn could benefit Microsoft, as the Xbox One had just beat the PS4 for the fourth straight month in the U.S. largely on the backs of the UHD Blu-ray capable Xbox One S. This is despite Sony releasing the PS4 Slim, which many analysts see as a totally unnecessary addition to the PS4 line-up. I can see why Sony needs a cheaper PS4 Slim to sit alongside the “premium” PS4 Pro, but while the Slim and just like its fatter older sibling is a better console than the original Xbox One, it looks decidedly average in value compared to the S. Even without looking at the lack of UHD Blu-ray playback, the Slim is not as powerful as the S, it’s not capable of 4K (at the moment) for things like Netflix, and the S can also do 4K upscaling for games. Microsoft is on to a winner with the Xbox One S – the PS4 Slim just simply isn’t

With that said, PlayStation VR may tip the battle in favour of Sony again though. But the game may change again when the Xbox One ‘Scorpio’ is unleashed.

Whatever happens, gamers will be the ultimate winner as competition between Sony, Microsoft, and come next year, Nintendo heats up.

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And that’s all we have for you this week. See you next week, but until then (and as we’re now legally obligated to end all articles this way), May the Trump be with You!

Weekly News Roundup (November 13, 2016)

November 13th, 2016

A somewhat shorter WNR this week, for no other reason than the fact that it’s been a quiet week, on the copyright/digital video/gaming front, with the world and the U.S. in particularly preoccupied with other matters.

Whatever your political affiliations, we can all agree that compassion, tolerance and kindness are core values that we all share, and it’s always worth noting all the things we share in common, as opposed to always focusing on our differences.

On a more specific political note, it’s clear that the real loser of this election has been establishment politics. Many people feel that they have been left behind by a much changed economy, and that to vote for more of the same is not in their best interests. Many have voted for real change when the last 8 years promised much but delivered little, but not all change is good change. And some change, are more likely to set things back, than to advance them forward. Time will tell what kind of change, if any, Americans be getting this time.

Copyright

4shared

4shared being targeted on Google, but righs-holders shunning the site’s own anti-piracy tools

Megaupload’s dramatic takedown has ensured many of its previous competitors have either gotten out of the game, or were themselves targets of lawsuits. One major site still exists though – 4shared. Those with good memories will remember a story I’ve written in the past about 4shared and their effort to create a superior anti-piracy tool for rights-holders – a tool that has largely been ignored by the very same people who complain to the U.S. government about 4shared’s activities. These same rights-holders are also going crazy on Google to try and remove Google’s search result links to 4shared, more than 50 million URL requests sent already, when they can achieve this and much more by using 4shared’s tools. It’s as if the rights-holders aren’t really that interested in getting pirated stuff off of 4shared, or at the very least, they show little interest in working with 4shared to solve a common problem.

My little pet theory is that rights-holders don’t want to be seen as cooperating with 4shared because some of them still harbour a wish to sue the site in the future. By using 4shared’s tool, and especially if it’s effective, it makes for a powerful argument that 4shared is already doing all they can to minimize the piracy problem. It also shifts the responsibility of patrolling the site for copyright infringement firmly back towards rights-holders, something rights-holders will always try to avoid.

Coding

The software industry’s copyright watchdog has a mini SNAFU when it comes to obeying software licensing on their own website

One things rights-holder groups should definitely try to avoid is to engage in their own copyright abuse, which may be what anti software piracy group the Business Software Alliance (BSA) did inadvertently. The BSA’s website used a free JavaScript library, but failed to include the software’s license with the modified code, which is the one requirement that’s required by the authors of the library. The library, jQuery, is used quite commonly on the Internet (including right here on Digital Digest), and including the license terms is quite normal for software of this kind. But some web developers prefer to strip away all “unnecessary” code to improve efficiency, and while this may be okay for other sites (even if it is against the licensing terms), for copyright stickler like the BSA, it’s a no-no for sure.

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Believe it or not, we’ve come to the end of this WNR. I was going to talk a bit more about the Nintendo Switch, like the fact that we now know the screen is indeed a touchscreen, and maybe a little bit about the Nintendo Classic (mini NES with 30 games, but way too short of a controller cable). But I can’t get my hands on either of these at the moment (the Switch for obvious reasons, the Classic because it’s sold out everywhere), so any talk is kind of pointless if you think about it.

So on that note, time to say goodbye for now. See you next week!


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