Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo confesses to using BitTorrent, and explains why there’s no on-demand movie service that offers all the movies you can get at Blockbuster. Film studios are locked into contracts that dictate who gets exclusive rights to films after release — movie theaters, video rental chains, premium channels, broadcast channels. That’s why, for example, “Netflix’s Watch Instantly streaming plan offers a smattering of popular new releases and a slightly wider selection of films from the ’80s and ’90s.” In the end, Manjoo says it’ll take about 10 years before we can stream any movie we want legally.
And I’m just not so sure. Manjoo is apparently not afraid that the film studios are going to sue him RIAA style, otherwise he wouldn’t be so open about using BitTorrent to download films. But neither are the studios oblivious to BitTorrent. They’re monitoring the situation, and they know exactly how much money they’re leaving on the table. The record industry and the newspaper industry are just two they’ve recently seen go down the crapper after not dealing with the internet. If these people have two slivers of brain to rub together, they’re working right now to fix the situation.
And there’s evidence that they’re making progress. Hulu is adding new movies for online streaming, some of them as recent as 2008. Of course they’re not blockbusters — it’s a free service, after all. And if some outdated contracts are all that’s in the way, well, one Steve Jobs demonstrated that where there’s a will, contracts can be re-negotiated. And here again, movie studios have a powerful precedents on their side in the negotiations.
Napster shut down in 2001, and the iTunes store opened two years later, in 2003. In other words, it took two years to get music online legally even after it was obvious that suing filesharing sites was not without hope. Contrast this with the recent verdict against ThePirateBay, after which the site continues to operate with relative impunity. How long until a streaming service that has anything out on DVD opens? I’d say a lot less than 10 years.