DRM Alternatives: Q&A with Steve O’Hear

Last week, the director of a documentary about the technology industry called In Search of the Valley made his movie available for download using Streamburst’s DRM-free watermarking technology. The online movie costs less than half what it would on DVD via Customflix.

A UK-based company, Streamburst adds a five-second introduction displaying the name on the credit card used to purchase a video, as well as a watermark (somehow this doesn’t qualify as DRM). Streamburst’s library also includes the fantastic road documentary Long Way Round starring Ewan McGregor.

Late last week we linked to a TechCrunch article on In Search of the Valley and Streamburst. Since then, we got ahold of director Steve O’Hear for a conversation touching on DRM, the Beeb, and why he chose to use Streamburst over his other options.

NewTeeVee: So I guess the big question is why you chose to distribute online. Did you plan that from the get-go?

Steve O’Hear: Well, we always intended to use online distribution, either the whole film or give some away. But in September of 2006, there weren’t very many options for paid-downloads. This was before Unbox, Brightcove, etc. Even Google Video doesn’t open its store to indie producers, nor iTunes.

Then when services started to pop up (hence NewTeeVee), most, if not all, use Windows DRM — the paid-for download services that is. This wasn’t going to fly. So we were stuck with our DVD option, which we knew was not what some of our potential viewers wanted.

NewTeeVee: So how did you get introduced to Streamburst?

Steve O’Hear: We appeared on the BBC world service program Digital Planet. They happened to be the segment before us. So I’d heard of them. But then a customer emailed, saying we should check them out. By that time (about a month ago) we’d had lots of email and comments on blogs, asking why we didn’t offer a download version. So when we found out Streamburst was DRM-free, albeit with a different twist to anti-piracy, we jumped at the chance to talk to them.

NewTeeVee: Are you comfortable being a sort of test pilot for their service? For instance, do you see the digital distribution upside outweighing the downside?

Steve O’Hear: Yes, 100%. Since the files are MPEG-4, with no DRM. There’s no risk to our viewers. But I think they’ll be around for the long term.

I think for indie filmmakers, the upside is very high. Without digital distribution, and social media (in terms of marketing), I don’t think I’d have made the film. It’s a niche topic and suited to online people. So it’s a very natural fit. We hoped to exploit the long tail… even before we knew what that was!

NewTeeVee: I know the release was just this week, but what kind of response have you gotten so far in terms of sales? And how do they compare to your DVD sales?

Steve O’Hear: Sales have been quite good, it’s only been two days. But it’s hard to judge at this stage because our main coverage has been TechCrunch and they featured us before.

What’s interesting is watching who just buys the film and how many opt for the extras or come back and get them later. That’s what downloads can offer. Total decoupling of content. The feedback we’ve had from blogs, et cetera, is people are impulse buying the download because it’s less than half the price of the DVD, they can have it instantly, and it works on all platforms.

NewTeeVee: So what kind of license are you distributing the film under? Since it’s without DRM, it would make it easier for others to incorporate in their work, at least technically.

Steve O’Hear: We retain full copyright. It’s not Creative Commons. The problem with a CC license, is most people use the non-commercial one, which doesn’t really help the next generation of filmmaker because even recouping costs is commercial. We had months of clearing rights to use images, et cetera.

NewTeeVee: Makes sense. So on a bit of a tangent — I know that the Beeb has been moving to place their content archives online, but in some contexts are employing DRM. As a documentarian and, I assume, a taxpayer in the UK, do you feel that a solution like Streamburst could offer the protection they need while also serving the owners of the content — Britons?

Steve O’Hear: Yes. The Beeb is facing exactly the same problem we had. Lack of crossplatform DRM, if you feel you need DRM. So they’ve gone Windows. Which is shocking. But I gather, they can’t offer DRM-free because they don’t have the rights for most of their content. The deals were made pre-internet. We have the luxury of making the film for the net.

NewTeeVee: So it comes back to extant contracts, like your own rights clearance?

Steve O’Hear: Yes.

NewTeeVee: Interesting. Well, seeing as how the pubs are near closing on your end, I’ll wrap it up there. Thanks for your time! Anything else you’d like to add?

Steve O’Hear: Just one thing. Streamburst has been, perhaps unfairly, portrayed as employing a “name and shame” policy, because each file has the purchaser’s name in it. But, the truth is, it’s more about making the buyer feel it’s their personal copy, for them to use on any device, for their personal pleasure. And the “watermark” is used for extreme cases. In our case, the likelihood of us ever suing anybody is almost zero.

NewTeeVee: Got it. So there’s an understanding that someone might share the film with a friend like they might loan a videocassette. But the protection is there in case someone starts pirating thousands of DVDs.

Steve O’Hear: Yes. So I think Streamburst is much more about making producers (like us) feel comfortable about online distribution, more than anything else. Some people have said it’s a psychological anti-piracy strategy. But the psychology is for the content producers! It’s a big step going from full DRM to no DRM. Streamburst is a nice halfway house that makes is very flexible for the viewer.

NewTeeVee: Ha! Well, and it’s also a reminder that you’re supporting independent content.

Steve O’Hear: Exactly, and some customers have said just that.