There used to be an expression that flew around in the early days of the internet, especially when it came to file sharing: “information wants to be free.” This is, of course, a stupid thing to say for many reasons, not least of which that it’s a personification; information doesn’t “want” anything. It is not sentient. It simply exists.
What those people really meant is that information should be more accessible, more transparent, and more affordable. After years of being charged $20 or more for ten songs or a movie on a plastic disc, people have embraced the opportunity to download a copy (even if it is not a top-quality one) for nearly nothing. Not surprisingly, those who own the content have fought this tooth and nail, be it the record industry, film studios, publishers; and now we find ourselves in a middle ground where we can obtain much of the entertainment we want sort-of-illegally for free (I use the qualifier because file sharing is legal in some countries, decriminalized in others, illegal in still others); or we can sort-of-buy it legally for a dollar or two (again, I qualify because we don’t so much buy the content as license it, trusting that it will be there in the cloud for us when we want it).
I used to pay about $70 for high speed internet service and another $50 or so for basic cable. Had I sprung for digital cable with movie channels and such, it would have been more like $100. Here in Canada, the television media are controlled by a few large companies regulated by a body called the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC. The CRTC is supposed to regulate these businesses on behalf of the Canadian public, but more often they seem to make decisions that benefit the protectionist interests of those companies, who depend on the income generated by providing Canadian clones of popular American or British series and channels.
There are those who would argue that this system feeds a lot of money into the Canadian entertainment industry, helping to keep all those struggling actors and film crews working, and I’m sure that is true. It is a license condition of those copycat channels that a certain percentage of their programming be Canadian in origin. I don’t want a single precious hair on any single precious Canadian artist’s head to be curled by what I’m about to say.
You see, it occurs to me now that while information may not want to be free, it may very well want to be region-free. It is completely idiotic, for example, that you can buy a DVD in Australia and not be able to play it in America. It makes sense that DVDs may have different formats that reflect the video standards of their home nations – NTSC vs. PAL and what have you. But if you want to import a cool new kung fu movie from Japan, it probably won’t play on your Canadian system. And why not? Not for any technological reason, but because some giant Canadian company hasn’t licensed the content to sell it to us yet.
It is the 21st century. Why are we allowing Rogers, Bell, or Shaw to take a cut of something that they did not make themselves? Why do they get to slap together packages and bundles that ensure a cable subscriber will have dozens of channels they do not want for the sake of getting the few that they do?
This is pretty much why so many of us are “cutting the cord”; cancelling cable entirely and downloading torrents or streaming video through the websites of those copycat networks. But, if some of my friends and I are any indication, the torrenting free-for-all is slowly migrating to content services like Netflix, which- gasp- recommends programs based on what you like, rather than whatever bundles the network wants you to take. Netflix has even started to acquire the rights to new original programming, most famously the cult favourite Arrested Development.
In the ongoing search for more options, some of us have gone a step further and subscribed to a VPN service that allows us to circumvent regional restrictions; which is a fancy way of saying that for $5 a month, I can watch the American version of Netflix instead of the Canadian. And yes, the American one has a lot more options. Do I care that some big corporation that holds the American license for a program is getting a few cents that some other big corporation that holds the Canadian license is not? No. I truly do not give a shit. Netflix is still getting $8 a month from me, and they are able to report and track what I am watching to the people that make the royalties.
This has taken on a new dimension with the recent addition of an Apple TV to my setup, because once the Apple TV has been configured with that same VPN service, hey presto! An app for Hulu Plus appears on the menu. Hulu Plus is sort of like Netflix, except it’s only available in the US and concentrates more on TV, including shows that are currently running. It is also ad-supported. Since it is US-only, it is a little trickier for a Canadian to sign up for it, but it does seem to work (for now anyway) and for another $8 a month, I now have access to new shows from NBC, ABC and Fox, as well as a lot of other smaller networks; plus an assortment of movies, most notably the Criterion Collection, which would be worth the price of admission alone.
So, $8 for Netflix, plus $5 for the VPN, plus $8 for Hulu Plus, and whatever portion of the internet bill I would be paying equals a new kind of cable- digital and tailored to my preferences and devices – for less than the cost of basic cable from a giant Canadian corporation. And since I am paying for those services, the creative folks should be getting royalties somewhere – more than they were getting when I was only torrenting, anyway.
Do you see what is happening, CRTC? Rogers, Bell, and Shaw? You are obsolete. Concentrate on what we now need in this country: reliable high speed internet and related services at a reasonable price. Stop trying to be movie moguls; you suck at it.