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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.
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.
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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
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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