There’s Just One Problem with Comcast’s Rumored Anti-Piracy Plan

Not fully satisfied with the anti-piracy effort known as "six strikes," Comcast is reportedly looking into another approach.

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Not fully satisfied with the anti-piracy effort known as “six strikes,” Comcast is reportedly looking into another approach.

When subscribers download pirated movies and TV shows, Comcast wants to have a pop-up window appear, showing where to legally purchase or rent those videos instead, Variety reports. Subscribers would still be able to download their videos through illicit methods; Comcast would simply point out that there’s a legal alternative.

Variety’s unnamed “sources” say Comcast is talking with film and TV studios about the plan. The nation’s largest cable company wants to launch a beta version with a limited number of subscribers and videos, but there’s no timetable yet.

The existing Copyright Alert System, informally known as six strikes, already steers file sharers toward legal sources of video, but in a different way. When users get caught downloading pirated videos, Internet providers send out a series of warnings, along with educational materials on where to purchase content legally. But these alerts happen weeks after the fact. Comcast’s proposed plan would show legal purchase and rental links while the illicit download is in progress, and would link to the specific movie or TV show that the user is trying to pirate. Links could lead to the service provider’s video on demand offerings, or to a third-party service like Amazon.

There’s just one problem with this approach, as pointed out in the comments of Variety‘s story: Often times, the movies and TV shows that people are downloading illegally aren’t available for purchase.

HBO’s Game of Thrones, for example, is currently the most-pirated TV series on BitTorrent, with five million downloads of the season three premiere, according to TorrentFreak. Unless you have an HBO subscription, which itself requires a cable TV subscription–or unless you know someone who’s willing to give you their HBO Go login credentials–you cannot currently watch the third season of Game of Thrones legally. Individual episodes are not available for purchase, and the complete third season won’t go on sale until February 2014.

The unavailability of content is even more pronounced with movies. To protect cinema revenue, studios typically don’t sell their films on DVD or video on demand until some time after the theatrical release. Some studios have experimented with simultaneous home and theater releases, but these are rare occurrences. As such, the most pirated movies are often the ones you can’t watch at home.

On a related note, if Comcast does steer users toward legal video sources, it almost certainly will not mention that those videos come with restrictions. If you buy a video from Amazon, you may only watch it on Amazon-sanctioned devices. If you buy a video from Apple, you may only play that video on Apple devices, or in iTunes on a PC, unless you use a workaround like Plex. To put it another way, the legal alternative isn’t the same as the pirated copy. In some ways, it’s inferior.

All of which makes Comcast’s plan seem a bit hypocritical, at least if it’s trying to prove a point to file sharers about the legal availability of content. Certainly, people do download movies and TV shows that could be purchased just as easily, and maybe a more responsive alert system would deter a handful of those people. But when it comes to the most popular content, it isn’t always available, and it always comes with restrictions. Let’s see Comcast and the film/television industry acknowledge that in a pop-up window.