Google, Netflix, Comcast and a script-sharing grandma

The Man is cracking down and blood is running all over the Internets, people. This past week has been nuts in regards to digital entertainment, net neutrality, piracy and screenplay sharing.

It all began for me when I received an email from Netflix on 11/22/10 that they were raising their rates. My One DVD at a time plus streaming “unlimited” plan was going up from $8.99 to $9.99. More significantly, they were also offering a new plan for $7.99 that offers only the Instant Viewing option that streams movies and TV shows directly to your computer or television.

“The fact is that Netflix members are already watching more TV episodes and movies streamed instantly over the Internet than on DVDs, and we expect that trend to continue.” Source: Netflix Blog

So the DVD is dying. Is that it?

Not even close.

I didn’t realize at the time that 3 days earlier, Comcast (the nations largest cable provider that is currently clearing the purchase of NBC Universal) had informed Level 3, Netflix’s streaming technology partner, that they were upping their fees. Level 3 was not happy.

This sets a scary precedent.  If Comcast can charge an extra fee to Level 3 for hosting Netflix (NFLX)  content, it could (and probably will at some point) charge Google (GOOG) to stream YouTube movies or Apple (AAPL) to broadcast iTunes content.  Because Comcast owns the last mile, they hold the keys. Source: Fortune

It gets more interesting.

Comcast is a partner in Hulu Plus, the new pay streaming wing of the free site, which launched two days earlier with a monthly subscription rate of $7.99, which at the time was undercutting Netflix by $2. So was Comcast just squeezing Netflix to promote its own interests? Netflix answered this blow by announcing its new streaming-only plan a few days later…for $7.99.

But this wasn’t just a battle between two entertainment providers. It set off protests and renewed interest in the Net Neutrality debate.

"Net neutrality is the foremost free speech issue of our time" Senator Al Franken

The timing couldn’t be more urgent. Net Neutrality is set to be voted on by the FCC on December 21 with ramifications in Congress.

The vote is scheduled about a month before Republicans, many of the (sic) opposed to new net neutrality rules, will take over the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, likely killing any chance of net neutrality rules passing in Congress. Source: PC World

All of this obviously highlights the exploding popularity of digitally delivered entertainment and the technological and financial issues that go along with it.

The amount of video watched online has nearly doubled in a year, to 15.1 hours per user per month, according to comScore. It is (sic) costs increasingly more to host and serve that content, and to build the infrastructure for the bandwidth that allows users to download it. Source:

It makes sense that prices would go up, after all, Netflix represents more than 20% of download traffic during peak hours, according to a new study by Sandvine. But with monoliths like Comcast and Google, many wonder if they can possibly be trusted to charge a fair price.

So what about the legal issues? That brings us to intellectual property and piracy, which have also been making headlines in the past week!

The weekend after Thanksgiving, November 29, a shocking story broke that you screenwriters no doubt heard about: Twentieth Century Fox filed a $15 million lawsuit against prolific script pdf uploader PJ McIlvaine. PJ is a kindly middle-class woman from Long Island, New York who is a passionate yet struggling produced screenwriter and was not making a profit off of these script files. She was also celebrating a christening with her family when two “Private Investigators” came to her door with the lawsuit warrant and grilled her for two hours, leaving her in tears.

I think we can all agree: DICK MOVE, Twentieth Century Fox! One imagines Rupert Murdoch flitting his fingers while cackling “Exxcellent.”

But let’s be honest: PJ must have known she was playing with fire. Her Mediafire pdf library contained over seven THOUSAND scripts [correction: PJ emailed me to say it was less than five thousand.]. She had a public profile at the Done Deal Pro forum site which included a link to her site.

Screenwriter and script consultant Max Adams defended PJ as merely offering the scripts for educational purposes and stated “She only posts scripts already available on other sites online.” I agree on the former but I’m dubious on the latter. From what I’ve heard (wocka wocka), PJ’s site was THE go-to script library for titles that one couldn’t find elsewhere on the Net, so I wonder about her sources.

Perhaps Fox is really after the sources that scan these scripts and email them out to friends and contacts? If not, they should be. Their employees who leak copyrighted material are the original pirates and it’s every studio’s responsibility to prevent these leaks.

Although they are legally in the right, it’s definitely a preposterous move for Fox to be suing PJ for 15 million clams. Was there a “Gestapo Lawsuit Quota” that needed to be filled before year’s end? This feels like one of those incidents of making an example of someone to scare the beejesus out of the rest of us. Remember back in the days of Napster when they arrested the Florida woman whose teenage grandson was using her computer to illegally download MP3s? Silly.

But hey, it worked. Millions of stoners went running scared, and companies like Apple swept in and start making a real profit with quality services like iTunes (and I’d like to think that public sentiment started shifting moreso to paying for creative content on the Net).

I must add that, although I know from personal experience that PJ is a very nice woman, I did have an odd experience with her in regards to my own screenplay Donnington that was reviewed on Scriptshadow (another popular site that has now ceased reviewing scripts that are not legally available to the public, at least for the time being). Somehow, my script was uploaded to PJ’s Mediafire site, even though the cover page of the pdf clearly says “Do not distribute without consent of author” and “copyright Daniel P. Calvisi.” If you opened the file, you would immediately see these words.

But she didn’t open it, she just posted it, sight unseen.

I emailed her with a request to delete it and she replied promptly that she had “hidden” it.

Why not just delete it?

That brings us to today, when Google announced it will no longer support searches for pirated material of copyrighted intellectual property

We’ll act on reliable copyright takedown requests within 24 hours. We will build tools to improve the submission process to make it easier for rightsholders to submit DMCA takedown requests for Google products (starting with Blogger and web Search). And for copyright owners who use the tools responsibly, we’ll reduce our average response time to 24 hours or less.

The statement doesn’t go so far as to say it will not allow you to search for copyrighted terms, but rather focuses on the ‘autocomplete’ function and policing of specific abuse cases. But one must wonder how this will affect our ability to google certain terms.

Will I not be able to search for an article about “Rain Man Screenplay” because Disney doesn’t want me finding a pdf of the copyrighted screenplay?

Interesting times. I’d like to say this is all great for creatives who need to protect their intellectual property, but it may only be narrowing the channels that an artist can use to distribute popular entertainment.

In the case of screenplay files for produced movies, they are an absolutely essential part of learning the craft of screenwriting — it would be a sad day indeed if we found the web devoid of any way to read them.

For the record, I’m not a fan of most published screenplays as they are almost never in the proper format and they rarely explain which draft is being presented. I think we need some kind of access to the real thing as a vital learning tool that will benefit the industry in many ways, not the least of which is promoting better writing.

Until this all gets cleared up, I suggest you be careful when sharing a produced screenplay file — keep it to a select group of friends and only for educational purposes — do NOT post it on a public site — and of course, you should not download pirated video in any form.

As the desk sergeant on Hill Street Blues used to say: Hey, let’s be careful out there.

And as I always say: Good Luck and Happy Writing.


P.S. I almost forgot — yesterday, I got a mailer from Time Warner Cable that they were raising their rates. Wait, they’re asking me to pay more for their crappy channel lineup and glitchy bargain bin Motorola DVR? It’s enough to make a guy cancel his cable and just use iTunes and Netflix Instant; that is, if that guy will still be able to get these services without having a cable internet provider. Ugh, I need a nap.

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