My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) focuses again on the CBC's decision to distribute the finale of Canada's Next Great Prime Minister without DRM on BitTorrent. The use of BitTorrent may come as a surprise to those who mistakenly equate file sharing solely with infringing activities. BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer technologies are finding increasing favour with legitimate businesses attracted to its ability to distribute content in an efficient, cost-effective fashion.
Indeed, the CBC's model comes from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, which last month used BitTorrent to distribute "Nordkalotten 365," one of the country's most popular programs. The experiment proved very successful, with tens of thousands of downloads at virtually no cost to the broadcaster. Moreover, the European Union recently joined forces with leading broadcasters such as the BBC to launch P2P-Next, a new peer-to-peer research project. The project, which involves an investment of tens of millions of dollars, hopes to advance current P2P technologies to create the "next-generation Internet television distribution system."
The move toward distribution without copy-protection – often referred to as DRM-free – is also increasingly the norm. Guinevere Orvis, one of the interactive producers on the CBC show, acknowledged last week that "DRM is dead, even if a lot of broadcasters don't realize it." Many in the music industry share that view, as all of the major international record labels have abandoned copy-protection for music downloads in the face of consumer criticism and interoperability concerns. Similarly, many of the world's largest book publishers have dropped DRM for their audiobooks, after finding that consumers simply weren't making unauthorized copies of electronic books without copy-protection.
While the CBC may succeed in paving a new path for content distribution in Canada, it is also placing the spotlight yet again on Canadian network management practices. Viewers around the world may welcome the use of BitTorrent, however, Canada's Internet service providers may be less enamoured by the development. Companies such as Rogers have admitted that they actively limit the amount of bandwidth allocated for file swapping on BitTorrent. Those practices – known as traffic shaping – may leave Canadians wondering why they are unable to swiftly download CBC content. In fact, critics point to the anti-competitive effects of ISPs limiting access to new forms of video distribution, while actively offering consumers competing video services.
The CBC's BitTorrent experiment represents an enlightened approach to content distribution that reduces costs and makes Canadian content readily available to a global audience. It would be ironic if ISP network management practices ensured that viewers outside the country enjoyed better access to the program than the Canadian taxpayers who helped fund its creation.