Blog Post

Comcast’s plan to turn pirates into customers: breakthrough or bogus?

Millions of people download pirated versions of popular shows like Games of Thrones rather than pay for them. The studios that make the shows hate this fact and have for years tried everything from mass litigation to working with internet providers to create a “6 strikes” regime to punish the pirates. Yet piracy remains a problem.

Now, though, comes an intriguing report that Comcast(s cmcsa) — a huge corporation that is both internet provider and owns major studio — wants to respond to pirates not with law enforcement tactics, but with sales offers.

According to Variety, Comcast is in talks with ISP’s and content owners to create a real-time system that will display pop-up sales messages whenever someone is downloading a show. Full details are unclear but the basic idea seems to involve filling a pirate’s torrent stream with links to legitimate content. Comcast itself has stayed silent about the plan.

If it’s true, the plan represents a major shift in the piracy debate, one that would begin treating piracy as a pricing problem more than a criminal one. This would jive with renowned copyright scholar Bill Patry’s theory that the best response to a piracy epidemic is to flood the zone with licensed, affordable content.

But those hoping this means an end to the copyright wars shouldn’t start clicking their heels just yet. That’s because, even if Comcast really is having a road-to-Damascus moment, that doesn’t mean its proposed plan is workable – or that the rest of the industry will follow suit.

In the event that Comcast goes forward with the plan, will it rely on Deep Packet Inspection or real-time notification from third parties that track content? And what’s in it for ISP’s, which have traditionally resisted efforts to make them police piracy?

As Ars Technica notes, Comcast is not just an ISP but a major content owner; this means, it would directly benefit from prodding pirates into buying content. For other ISP’s, the benefit is less clear, especially if they don’t receive a commission on sales. And if Comcast applies the system only to the shows it owns (Seinfeld, 30 Rock and so on) without applying it to competitors, is that an anti-trust issue?

Finally, there’s the question of how a real-time sales system would affect the laws that shelter ISP’s from liability for copyright infringement. Many of the balances set out in the current DMCA law are based on the premise that online service providers don’t have an active role in what takes place on their servers and networks. Would a real time sales system, in which ISP’s are actively trying to monetize piracy, undo this? Who knows.

The bottom line is that Comcast’s proposal could be a game-changer for a vexing piracy problem. But it’s way too soon to say if the company is serious or if the plan would actually work.


6 Responses to “Comcast’s plan to turn pirates into customers: breakthrough or bogus?”

  1. holyhell

    Net Neutrality pfft what a joke comcast owns Universal and nbc they are now the MAFIAA i wonder if this roles into their nsa deal everyone will just look the other way completely bogus

  2. Paul Sweeting

    It sounds to me more like an effort to resolve the inevitable internal conflict at Comcast between the broadband side and the NBC side. I doubt other networks, who have to negotiate carriage deals with Comcast, will be interested in helping it solve its own problems.

  3. Tetracycloide

    Let’s set aside the privacy problem complete for a moment and just pretend everyone is OK with their ISP snooping on all of their activity (they’re not, I know, just bare with me). So what happens then when you download, since you brought it up, Game of Thrones? Where is it even going to direct you to? Your cable providers package upgrade page? This isn’t an education problem. People already know where they can by a cable package with HBO in it they just aren’t willing to pay that much money for something they don’t want to get access to something they actually do want. The original problem remains: there aren’t enough convenient and cheap sources for the content people want to view so they download what they can’t find reasonably elsewhere.

  4. Spying on customers’ downloads wasn’t what made iTunes so popular.

    The answer to lessening piracy of video programming is access and pricing. “Game of Thrones” was pirated largely by people that did not have legal means to acquire it. (It is not on the same airing schedule in Australia).

    To a lesser extent, “Game of Thrones” is pirated in the states, by people not willing to buy a cable package to get HBO. There is also no evidence that pirates aren’t eventual customers. It is not uncommon to pirate the episodes and watch them immediately, then buy the blu-ray of the complete season 7 months later.

    So Comcast can fix this by going a la carte. I would happily pay for AMC, HBO, SHO, Comedy Central & the Cooking Channel. I’m just not keen on all of those other channels (screw you, honey booboo, the dugers, real housewives of whatever city, and fox news) getting my money when I don’t watch them.

    Time Warner/HBO can fix the “Game of Thrones” piracy by offering up the episodes at a low price, and immediately after they air — worldwide.

    Here’s a plan: Offer each HD episode of “Game of Thrones” on Amazon prime streaming 12 hours after it airs. Charge $2 an HD episode. When the DVD/Blu-ray is released, you can buy it off of amazon with a discount EQUAL to the amount you already paid to stream it.

  5. Great, even MORE spying on what people do on the Internet. If this flies, whats next they are going to charge your ISP account for something they think you are pirating?

    FRAK YOU Comcast, I will bide my time until Google fiber arrives and then you can watch your market share shrivel up and blow away!