Thursday, February 3, 2011
On the one-hour death and resurrection of atdhe.net
Ian of the always relevant twohundredpercent—whose one-off media posts often make this blog cringe with embarrassment at its own output exclusively on the subject—already spoke well to this topic today so I won't add too much, except of course my own usual rambling take on things.
I don't want to argue shades-of-gray legal issues with regard to illegal feed farms. Whether sites like atdhe.net are strictly in line with the whichever country's copyright law or not is for the courts to decide and for sharper legal minds than mine to opine about. And I agree with Ian that the Department of Homeland's Security's decision to seize the domains of atdhe.net and rojadirecta.com was a mere gesture. All the Twitter hubbub died down as soon as everyone realized the sites were up and running again on different domains, literally in hours.
What I want to talk about specifically is iTunes and the sustainability of the television rights juggernaut that is European football.
We all know the story of what happened to the music industry in the past decade or so: an illegal market of mp3s sprang up via file sharing sites like Napster. Various courts of law were powerless to stop the trend as new, free-to-download software would always spring up to fill the gap. It was for a long time considered the end of recorded music as we know it.
Amid the carnage—and there was a lot of carnage as far as A & R's and record labels were concerned—came Apple's decision to quietly insist its ubiquitous iPod users download music for the price of 99 cents per song. At first it was widely assumed music thieves would simply laugh and keep on thieving, but the iTunes model stubbornly lived on. While not exactly the answer to the music industry's woes, iTunes did at least provide a light at the end of the tunnel for musicians wanting to earn some money from their trade, even though era of the million unit-selling, champagne-swilling parties at the big recording label is over.
But iTunes worked because Apple already owned the biggest, most popular mp3 player in the world with iPod. In other words, it owned a closed-source delivery system for its product. Web-savvy people who love popular albums still have no reason to start paying money for what they can get for free on Limewire, but old people and people with unwieldy musical tastes like myself (try finding the choral works of Herbert Howells on file sharing software) use iTunes. We're not buying music as such but rather the convenience of not having to a) find a store/website that sells the CD and b) troll file-sharing software in the vain hope you'll find a decent recording of the Collegium Regale Te Deum. Which is good for smaller artists in need of exposure, and good for bigger artists who like to tour stadiums a lot, and bad for pretty much everyone else. It's the same model that many newspapers and magazines are hoping iPad will eventually provide for print content. Apple owns a closed-source content delivery system there as well—apps—and it seems consumers are willing to pay for them.
European football once owned (in a sense) a closed-source content delivery system via the selling of television rights. In fact, much of the bloated financial shitstorm that is modern football is grounded in the practice of forcing cable stations to out-bid one another and pay enormous sums for the right to show games. That model looked fairly intact as recently as a few years ago, when the internet was a last resort for football fans unable to get to the pub/afford cable (we all remember trolling Justin TV for a grainy Cantonese-language, five minute delayed feed of one Premier League match). Today however, there are feeds of pretty much all major European fixtures available in pretty good quality on more than one hub site. As soon as the individual feeds are cut off, new ones spring up via an ever-diversifying array of video streaming software. As Ian already mentioned, the individual site domains seized by the DHS have already relaunched. The tap can't be turned off.
This isn't an insignificant problem. Even if all the top European leagues went in on some sort of collective web hub for a market-friendly subscription fee for all-access, it could never match the revenue-generating power of television rights. Maybe the old habit of cable will die hard, but the high price of cable subscriptions means more and more soccer fans will turn to higher-quality illegal feeds to get their fix. Whether this is morally acceptable or not isn't the point; you're not going to make money by using international law to plug a million holes. We've already seen this with the music industry. The point is what happens if the web kills the value of TV rights? Hoping "technology" will somehow get up off the couch and help out Richard Scudamore make money one way or another might work, but that's an enormous gamble. What won't work, as we've seen this week, is relying on the law to make your money for you.
Photo by Johnny Vulcan.
Posted by Richard Whittall at 6:15 PM