International Rights and a Torrent of Options

The latest round of Downton Abbey aired in the US in January. It had aired in the UK three months earlier, and by the time it reached the United States, many people had already watched it, through the magic of torrents1. This created a sort of strange fan limbo as people started talking about the series before it was airing, or got confused about the schedule and discussed things that hadn’t happened yet in the US yet, mistakenly believing that people had already seen those episodes.

It highlighted a growing problem with international distribution rights, and a failure on the part of the film and television industry to get with the program. The fact is that if you don’t arrange for simultaneous release, fans are likely to pirate, because they want to see something now, not when it is scheduled to show up in their country. Likewise for books, not all of which are released simultaneously around the world, forcing fans to order from other countries, if they can, or to have friends send them over, or, yes, to pirate ebooks to be able to read when the book actually comes out.

Negotiating international distribution rights is a lot of work and it involves some delicate balancing acts. Not addressing torrenting is really not going to help the problem, though; it’s time for the industry to recognise that the genie is well out of the bottle and will not be put back in, no matter how many lawsuits they file. People are going to torrent, and pirated data will be available to people who want to find it, and that’s just how it’s going to be.

I really can’t blame fans for torrenting when something is out in another country and not in theirs, because it seems manifestly unfair. And it’s frustrating to see the industry refusing to acknowledge this, because it’s costing them money. Fans in Australia, for example, would be happy to pay to see a movie in the theatre if it came out on the same release date as in the US. Since they don’t want to wait weeks or months, they pirate, and likely don’t go to the theatre, because they’ve seen the film now.

The industry wants to claim that torrenting is the problem here, but that’s not a reasonable assessment of the situation. The problem here is a failure to coordinate international distribution, for whatever reasons; poor contract negotiation, weird clauses in rights agreements, and whatever other issues the industry hasn’t managed to adequately address. Blaming fans for its own lack of ability to keep pace with a changing world isn’t really going to solve the fundamental problem, and it’s a problem the industry should actually be very happy with, because what it boils down to is that people really want to consume media, and they are willing to go to great lengths to do so.

People are so excited about media that they are willing to break the law to get to it when it is not available to them. This is pretty good news for the creators of media, I’d argue, that they have fans dedicated enough to torrent their work. There’s also the element, of course, of wanting a chance to see and digest something to be able to talk about it simultaneously with people who can access it legally in other countries, and many people also want to avoid spoilers; with a series like Downton Abbey, for example, there are events that you might want to watch unfold over time, rather than being told about them in advance, so torrenting is also a bit of a protective measure.

The problem here is not with fans, but with media distribution. And while some large studios and labels like to claim that torrenting harms their bottom line by depriving them of customers, in this case, they have only themselves to blame; fans openly express a desire to buy media, to see it in theatres, to watch it on their own televisions, and can’t, because it’s not available in their nations. They are more than happy to be paying customers, but are being deprived of the opportunity.

This is a clear argument for improving media distribution methods. Simultaneous release should not be this difficult to coordinate, and it should be standard, given the global nature of information exchange and communication. Fans in Australia will talk to fans in the US, who are also talking to people in Britain, in Germany, in Egypt, and everywhere else. When media is released asynchronously, it makes it very hard for fans to communicate with each other, and to have the experience of mutually enjoying a work of media across international boundaries.

When the Harry Potter books were released internationally, I had a sense while I was lying in bed with my own copy that people across the world were reading the same book at that very moment, that we were all reading together and we’d be able to gather and talk about it. There was a feeling of deep fellowship there, even as I was alone turning the pages in the dim light of the bedside lamp, because I knew that someone else, somewhere, was reading the exact same sentence I was, was seeing the same scene I was, was gasping in surprise when I was. That’s what synchronous media release does, is create that sense of connection and fellowship.

So it’s no surprise that when fans aren’t provided with it, they seek a way to create that experience on their own. Who wouldn’t?

  1. I had also already watched it, but courtesy of a review copy from PBS.