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Back in 1999, MP3 was hardly a household word. The few players on the market were clunky, weak and unpopular, filled with CDs ripped by unreliable, bloated encoders. Mobile video, on the other hand, was virtually nonexistent, save a few overpriced DVD players with built-in screens.
Before the year’s end, however, a simple service would come along and forever alter the landscape. Credited with jump-starting the digital revolution long before iTunes or the iPod, Shawn Fanning built an empire on a single, basic premise: sharing.
Suddenly, millions of people who had never heard of MP3s were downloading, uploading and exchanging their favorite songs via Napster’s 24/7, worldwide jukebox. Gone was the tedious wait for your buddy to make a tape; instead, anyone with a broadband connection was your best friend, who just happened to have an endless, fully searchable catalog.
It was a glorious time of discovery. That is, until the Recording Industry Association of America declared it illegal.
It took some time, but the RIAA eventually shut down Napster and made enough speeches to make the whole concept feel dirty and shameful. So, by the time Apple opened the iTunes Music Store in 2003, the world was ready for a guilt-free version of Napster.
Of course, not-quite-legal file-sharing and downloading services still operate, but for the most part, iTunes was able to fill the void left in Napster’s wake, leading the legal revolution and gobbling up some 85 percent of the market, according to the latest figures. Even ultra-fast transfer services like RapidShare and YouSendIt have done little to upset the iTunes apple cart, and it seems that Steve Jobs was right all along: Music lovers don’t necessarily want to steal --- they merely want access to a full library of songs at their fingertips.
Movies, on the other hand, pose a different set of problems. Steve built the iTunes Music Store on the idea that people “want to own their music,” but despite the proliferation of DVDs and home theaters, people don’t necessarily want to own a stockpile of movies --- especially not ones they haven’t seen. When it’s boiled down, the movie business is largely predicated on individual viewings, whether at a theater, on television or as part of a rental club.
So, as movies follow music into the digital realm, more sophisticated ways to circumvent Hollywood have popped up. The rise of legal movie streaming from the likes of iTunes, Amazon and Netflix has inevitably brought increased exposure and popularity to so-called illegal streaming sites, which don’t allow downloading or anything resembling DVD quality, but nonetheless offer a decent movie-viewing experience. Sites like QuickSilverScreen, SurfTheChannel and the defunct TV Links, which was shut down last October by the U.K.-based Federation Against Copyright Theft, lure millions of viewers with a simple, one-click formula that puts a virtual video store at our fingertips, even if it is unauthorized.
"Sites such as TV Links contribute to and profit from copyright infringement by identifying, posting, organising and indexing links to infringing content found on the internet that users can then view on demand by visiting these illegal sites," said a spokesman for FACT after arresting the site’s founder.
As they say, “illegal” streaming sites provide a portal to the vast library of movies and videos that can be found across the Web. Often, the links they provide are subtitled, dubbed or split into several parts, can be slow to buffer, or sometimes simply no longer available, but the payoff is worth the inconvenience for many who don’t feel like heading to a theater to see “Prom Night” or “The Forbidden Kingdom,” each watched more than 10,000 times on SurfTheChannel.
Consumers “don’t really care where the content comes from, as long as it’s there when they want to access it,” said Dean Garfield, executive vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America. “It would stand to reason that I don’t need a bunch of MP3s or MP4s on a player, as long as that player can give me what I want to watch, whenever I want to watch.
“People don’t necessary want to put (movies) onto another platform. They want to click a button and have it appear right away.”
“It’s all down to the individual on how it fits with their needs,” echoed Richard Foxton of SurfTheChannel.
Take “I Am Legend,” which was officially released for home viewing on March 18 and quickly claimed the No. 1 spot on the iTunes Top Rentals list. While it’s unclear how many pairs of eyeballs have actually watched Will Smith’s blockbuster off iTunes in order to earn its lofty position, SurftheChannel’s version has been clicked nearly a million times.
“The success of STC is largely down to the fact that we don’t place restrictions on the user,” said Foxton. “There is no need to pay, subscribe or even register to watch on STC. More importantly there is no software to install or odious DRM ramifications. It is because of this baseline ‘click and watch’ simplicity that a large number of users prefer to use STC as an alternative to other types of service.”