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The Dream Stream
I want my bootleg TV
By ERIC ELLIS

December 28, 1999
Web posted at 1 p.m. Hong Kong time, 12 a.m. EDT


When I was a kid, one of the most prized possessions anyone could have was a Bruce Springsteen album. Not just any old Springsteen LP -- you could get them for $5 at the town record store -- but, I must confess, a bootleg live double album furtively recorded by a concert-goer. The illegality and derring-do involved made it all the more attractive.

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Across Asia these days, bootleg CDs, watches, movies, software, even underwear are commonly available in the region's street markets. And it's not attractive at all. Despite the efforts of legislators and trade negotiators the world over to stop the practice, knock-offs and rip-offs are sadly part of the Asian commercial landscape, and there seems to be little that original manufacturers can do about it.

Worst of all, the Internet is going to exacerbate the problem. For evidence of what future bootlegging might be like, log onto icravetv.com. This Toronto-based start-up unashamedly takes rip-offs to a higher level, using Internet technology to stream U.S. and Canadian television programming onto the web and around the world. It's far more sophisticated than the cloak-and-dagger technique of my Springsteen bootlegger.

The feed is beamed in via normal antennae or through cable and then retransmitted within seconds via the web. The picture quality isn't great, not yet anyway. But as streaming technology evolves, the picture will get better and so will the programming choices. "Bill Gates is spending a lot of money bringing the Internet to the family television," says icravetv.com's president Bill Craig. "We're spending a lot less to bring television to the Internet." Talk like that spooks the big broadcasters, who could see their cable subscription base -- and advertising billions -- slip away if companies like icravetv.com are allowed to flourish.

But holding back progress runs counter to the gung-ho, let's-just-wing-it nature of Net culture. Many Net junkies think technology is all about empowering the little guy. Just as I coveted the bootleg Springsteen album, Netizens love outmaneuvering corporate goliaths who don't get the Net.

It all reminds me of the many entrepreneurial operators I've met in India, who work out of tiny rooms surrounded by batteries of VCRs and bolts of cabling. These freewheeling TV moguls pull down the free-to-air Star TV signals onto receiving dishes (some as crude as homemade cooking-foil-lined bowls) and send it out to neighborhood TVs -- for a fee, of course. Some even cut out Star's advertisements and splice in more relevant ads from, say, neighborhood restaurants. Needless to say, Rupert Murdoch didn't see a rupee from these transactions.

Star could argue, as do the North American broadcasters, that the programming is being stolen, that content copyright is being infringed. But a growing body of legal opinion says the rise of the Internet will inevitably require a re-think of copyright protection. Says Craig: "We're free to [broadcast their signals] without their permission. Canadian law allows that to happen."

U.S. broadcasting giants ABC, NBC and CBS have already launched legal challenges, but for the moment, at least, icravetv.com streams and beams with impunity. Even if it gets shut down, what's to stop an imitator or two, or a thousand for that matter, doing the same from a more difficult legal environment, like Iran?

"This is going to take it to the next level," says Craig, "letting you call up your favorite TV station and put it in the corner of your screen while you work, surf or play games." Perhaps, but icravetv.com also shows that the Internet can create as many problems for the old economy as it does solve them for the new one.

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