Yesterday morning saw the latest development in the ongoing question of whether or not Netflix is going to prevent people from accessing foreign catalogues using VPNs. Specifically, new terms and conditions state that Netflix could suspend accounts if the user is caught accessing content from other locations.
Now, a lot of you made it very clear that should this ever happen, you'll be cancelling your subscriptions and returning to torrents -- a sentiment I share. It's obvious to anyone with a scrap of common sense that region locking is rather ineffective, and I'm sure everyone is in agreement that it's more likely to promote piracy than prevent it. But what about if we got rid of region locking altogether?
As we know, torrenting isn't that easy for a total beginner, especially since all the good torrenting sites keep getting shut down. It's safe to say that being able to watch something legally, whenever you feel like it, is a much better option. Even if you have to pay a small monthly fee for the privilege.
That's Already Happening. Sort Of
Thankfully some people have actually realised this, and have been taking measures that reduce the impact of piracy. A very good example is the BBC and how quickly it made new episodes of Sherlock available in China. Apparently Sherlock has a huge following in China, and to prevent people from pirating new episodes en masse a deal was made between the BBC and streaming service Youku. This deal meant that Youku's 398 million members would be able to watch the episodes a mere two hours after being broadcast in the UK. Other international channels, like BBC America, had to wait a few weeks. That deal apparently worked, and many millions of Chinese people watched Sherlock legitimately instead of resorting to piracy.
The BBC isn't the only network to have struck this sort of deal in China, and while it's not quite the same as removing region locks altogether it's an instance where everyone got what they want without having to resort to less-than-legal tactics.
Strict Restrictions Don't Help Anyone
It's not difficult to understand why people resort to pirating content, it is rather convenient after all. But it's also not difficult to see the point of view of the rights holders. It represents a loss of revenue from adverts and episode sales after all. You'd think they'd jump at any chance to prevent piracy in a way that's convenient to the audience and still earns them money.
In practice, that doesn't happen. Different services have different licensing agreements in different regions and, as we all know, what is available in one country isn't always available in another. Geography, inevitably, gets in the way.
Remember the god-forsaken mess that was the Sony hack? You may recall that one of the revelations that came out of it was that the studio is seriously unhappy with Netflix. From Sony's perspective, Netflix hasn't been doing enough to tackle so-called 'geo-piracy', i.e. people using VPNs to access foreign Netflix catalogues. Sony specifically had issues with the fact that Australians were using VPN services to access the US Netflix catalogue, despite Netflix not having the Australian streaming rights for any Sony content (Netflix had yet to launch in Australia at that point, although it has now).
But let's not forget: people who do use VPNs are not using them to access Netflix content without paying. They still have to have an active subscription, regardless which catalogue they're accessing. These are not people accessing free content, nor are they people using VPNs to try and pay a little bit less each month (in the US new Netflix members pay $9/£6.03 a month, while UK members pay £5.99 a month). This is where the situation gets a little bit messy.
The money people pay does go directly into Netflix's wallet, but if they're using a VPN then their activity on the site is effectively the same as anybody who lives in the US. I'll use the Sony-controlled programme Breaking Bad as an example, and let's imagine that it's only available in the US for the time being. The more people who watch the programme, regardless of where they actually are, the more valuable it becomes to Netflix. The more valuable it is to Netflix, the more money Sony can request when the time comes for licensing contracts to be renewed. That should mean it's actually better for people to partake in 'geo-piracy' because it means Sony and Netflix could, theoretically, earn more money.
Of course, you'll never stop the hardcore torrenters, or the people who refuse to shell out £6 a month. But let's not forget, they only account for the minority of users. Just looking at Giz UK's own commenting community again, many of you admit that you torrent but the general consensus seems to be that you don't do it indiscriminately. People are willing to pay for convenience and, aside from that pesky 'Are You Still There?' screen, marathoning a show on Netflix is much more convenient than torrenting it. Region locking is just one hurdle that makes it far less convenient, and it doesn't really accomplish anything other than irritating the user base.
Oh, and don't even get me started on region-locked content on YouTube. Anyone can monetise the videos they upload there, so there's absolutely no reason to deliberately restrict access for international audiences.
Just imagine how great it would be to not have any region locks. You could watch Game of Thrones on HBO Now before Sky gets its hands on it. Any American TV would be available to you without having to wait an indeterminate amount of time for the British channels to get their hands on them. You all probably do that now, but this way certainly seems far more ethical and a lot more convenient.
But this scenario will never happen. Not in the way we want anyway. Why? Primarily because of money, of course.
A fairly good example is BBC iPlayer. You can't make iPlayer region free without angering every person who has ever paid the TV licence. A region-free iPlayer could only be one of two things: 100 per cent free to access as it is in the UK already, or supported by adverts which would defeat the purpose of the BBC and the licence fee. To keep out people who live in countries that don't contribute to the licence fee, you need to have region locks.
See what I mean?
But, you know what's almost as good as no region locks? VPNs. You still have to pay to access to the locked services, and in some instances you'll still have to watch the adverts that support them. For this very reason there are less moral quandaries than with torrenting, and at the end of the day everyone gets what they want.
Well, except all those irate licence-payers who realised that VPNs do mean people from other countries can access iPlayer. If that's you, losing access to overseas Netflix is on your head.