Apple, the tyrant of online content?

Filed in General, TechnologyTags: ,

I'm beginning to understand how people with MP3 players that cannot play Apple's FairPlay-protected music files feel, but from a different angle.

In my previous article Hope for a better Asian film/television industry, I stated that we need online stores from which to buy and download Asian-made television and movie content, all without virtual geographic boundaries and all without prejudice or bias to the producers of that content. Only then would the real market emerge, enabling countless talented people in Hong Kong and Asia to do their stuff and create excellent content for the world to enjoy. Two other conditions though were protection of the content to prevent casual piracy and iPod compatibility. The answer to these two conditions was obviously Apple's FairPlay.

The problem? Apple doesn't license FairPlay to anyone else to use although there were suggestions at one stage that companies like Amazon could resell content from Apple's iTunes store via a special arrangement. The result? Only one company, Apple, holds the power to allow independent film and video producers to sell their work online. Apple has the power to decide who can sell and who can't sell their content. They also have the power to decide which content can be sold where. In other words, they have (or soon will) effectively become the largest controller of music and video content in the world.

We could ask someone else to build another content protection system but it would be difficult and time consuming to build something with all the functionality that the iTunes store has; accounts, monthly 'allowances', coupons; and much of that functionality is probably patented by Apple or some other large corporation so that we wouldn't be permitted to duplicate it anyway.

In other words, unless Apple opens an iTunes store in Asia, unless Apple allows independent television and movie content producers to sell their wares through the iTunes store, unless Apple allows the same content to be accessible worldwide, then we; the entertainment talent in Asia; are up the creek without a paddle.

Again, I'm beginning to understand how the non-iPod MP3 player people feel. For me though, the problem is one of not being able to sell the product rather than not being able to play and enjoy the product. If things continue the way they are now, Apple will soon have complete worldwide control of online audio and video content sales regardless of how hard Microsoft and Real work to prevent this scenario. As much as I like Apple, allowing them or any other single entity to have absolute control would not be a good thing.

Perhaps what we really need is an open-source content protection system so that anybody with the desire can set up their own online video content store, selling to anybody regardless of the operating system on their device.

Any takers?

Hope for a better Asian film/television industry

Filed in TVB (H.K.) 香港無線電視, WorkTags: ,

I've been filming 刑事情報科 at TVB over the last four weeks or so. Before we began filming the series, there was much enthusiasm and a meeting with the head script writer to ensure that we all knew what direction the series was taking and how we were to act our parts. The idea for the series was relatively new and we were pretty excited about it.

Unfortunately, one of TVB's annoyances popped up for this series; late scripts. For almost every shooting so far, we've received our scripts via fax on the day before shooting. For me personally, this is just enough time to get familiar with the dialog and be able to play the part reasonably ok. It is not enough time to fully understand what might be going on within the scene and within the dialog, and then being able to make decisions about alternate methods of acting the scene.

Luckily for TVB, they have a lot of talented people working for them including directors and assistant directors who have to work out what people and props they need for each scene with only just a little more time than we the actors have available to study the scripts. TVB also has capable actors and actresses who have learnt to deal with the stressful schedule and produce extremely good performances under the circumstances. The result is television series which are acceptable and occasionally exceptional.

The truth though is that many of us; actors, actresses, directors and the script writers; would like to be producing higher quality content. We are limited in our efforts though by a corporation whose goal is to make as much money as possible, producing audience-acceptable content for as little money as possible. TVB can afford to do this because in the world that we live in, TVB is pretty much the only mass producer of Cantonese-language television content. For all I know, they might even be the only mass producer of Chinese-language content for audiences outside of China. That makes them a powerful corporation and so far, no other corporation has been able to compete with them.

In Hong Kong, piracy and monopolies have almost killed the film and television industry. There are loads of talented people who could produce quality content but there are limited options for the distribution and sale of that content. I truly believe though that there is still hope for the industry.

The key is to loosen the stranglehold that the monopolists have on the distribution of video content. When there are more places to buy and view Hong Kong-made video content, there will be a higher demand for that content and there will be more opportunities and work for the people in the industry. The internet is the key.

We need one or more (preferably more) internet companies similar to NetFlix, iTunes and Amazon that allow people to purchase, download and view television and movie content. We need internet companies that accept content from independent producers, who fairly compensate the producers for their work, and most importantly allow access to that content from anywhere in the world; i.e., no virtual geographical boundaries to protect the old regime of distributors.

iTunes is already selling Hollywood-made television content in the U.S.A. It can be done. Unfortunately, iTunes is not available in any Asian country except Japan because the markets are relatively small and because Apple cannot establish reasonable terms with the record companies and distributors in these countries. Without access to audio content, Apple is not likely to open up iTunes stores in Asia simply to provide video content.

You might ask why we need iTunes to distribute our television content. Part of the answer is protection of the content. Let's be frank. If we in the industry work hard to produce a great television series only to sell one copy and see it get pirated throughout China and Asia, what's the point? The content would definitely have to be protected. For the moment, that means either Apple's FairPlay DRM system or Microsoft's Windows Media DRM system. Apple's FairPlay is the only one that runs on Apple's iPods. Apple's FairPlay also runs on all Apple Mac computers and most of today's Windows computers. In contrast, the Windows Media system only runs on Windows computers and non-iPod portable devices designed specifically to be compatible with the Windows Media system. It doesn't run on Mac computers or iPods. FairPlay would therefore be the logical and ideal choice of DRM systems. The problem is that Apple doesn't license its FairPlay system to anyone else to use. If you want to produce anything in FairPlay format, you have to sell it through Apple's iTunes stores, but since iTunes is not available in much of Asia, there's no point in using the FairPlay system. Sigh!

For the moment then, it would be very difficult to find or set up an ideal online store for television and movie content available to anyone in Asia or the rest of the world interested in Asian video content.

However, let's assume just for the moment that it is indeed possible to set up such an online store and somebody actually does it. What might happen as a result?

First, there would be incentive to write and produce quality content because presumably, the better the quality, the larger the audience. You would also be competing with other content producers so you'd try to make your content better than theirs to compete for the audience's money.

Second, because the market would no longer be controlled by big corporations like TVB and the film distributors, all content producers would have an opportunity to sell their content. It would be a fair and open market (although the larger corporations would assuredly have much more marketing money to spend). Consequently, there'd be more work for everyone in the industry.

Furthermore, I'd like to others in the industry to consider this for a moment. What does it take to record television content in terms of equipment? Today, filming and editing in DV video is relatively inexpensive.

I'd therefore suggest to enthusiastic members of the film and television industry that they work together to produce the new content and reward themselves accordingly with dividends similar to those used in Hollywood. Currently, people who work on Hollywood television series get paid when the series goes to air, get paid again when it gets re-aired, get dividends when the series gets released on VCD and DVD and so on and so on. If the series is a good one, people involved in the production of that series can expect a decent income from that series for years to come. In Hong Kong, it's a completely different story. There are no unions and no dividend systems. We as actors get a small payment for our work in the television or movie production and then never see another dime even if the product sells a million DVD copies and gets re-aired on cable and satellite television 100 times.

With guaranteed access to one or more online content distribution stores, a group of like-minded enthusiastic people could work together and produce a television series with very little immediate budget. In exchange for their "work now, earn later" agreement, they could establish a dividend system similar to the one used in the states where they each get a piece of the online sales of the television series. With such incentive and the promise of unlimited markets, these people would work hard to produce the best content they can and over time create a reliable source of income for them as they do the work they love.

In time, established leaders in the industry including well-paid actors, actresses, directors and writers, would see the incomes being made by the people using these dividend systems and insist on getting the same treatment in their own productions. Given a few more years, the whole industry would finally be in a situation where the quality of most video production is high and the profits of those productions are fairly distributed among the people involved in making them. (Noting of course that there will always be the low quality cheap productions and there will always be actors and actresses willing to trade their dividend rights for what might be their lucky break.)

How much time would this take? I'd guess approximately ten years would be required before almost all essential people in the industry demand shared profits. There would be hiccups along the way, and there would probably also be pressure; both legal and illegal; from the large corporations to limit the progress of such an industry trend. Marketing costs would also make it difficult for new companies to make their productions known and successful. That said, the overall result would be well worth it for everyone involved including the audience who gets a much larger selection of content to choose from, and a much higher quality of content.

Everything depends on the availability of online stores able and willing to resell the video content, and on the availability of one or more DRM protection systems, able to produce protected content that can be played by most people. For my money, that's Apple's FairPlay; playable on Apple Mac computers, Microsoft Windows computers and iPods.

(By the way, if France succeeds in forcing the legalising of reverse engineering DRM systems like FairPlay, many content producers are going to reconsider selling their content on the internet. It will eventually be a big loss to television and movie audiences the world over.)

I wonder what Apple has planned for the future? Licensing FairPlay would be nice ;-)

The blog is back!

Filed in Technology

Ok. The blog is back on line on its new home in a new server.

I had to move the blog. There were one or two functions I needed which were once available on TypePad and then taken away; too complicated to discuss here except to say that if I didn't write anything for awhile, the main blog page would gradually shrink until nothing showed except for the sidebars. That won't happen now.

Additionally, I'll be setting up two new blogs. One will be specifically for bird watching so that those of you not interested in my bird photographs won't have to look at them; something akin to being forced to look at a friend's huge collection of baby photos. The other blog will be the story of our pets.

Both blogs are NOT online yet. In fact, I haven't even begun to design them. I've had trouble contributing to this blog recently (busy and sick) so I hope I can find the time to contribute to all three.

In the meantime, feel free to look around as usual and email me if you find any errors in the blog; eg, bad links or missing photographs.