The owner of the nation's largest cable operator has begun preliminary discussions with both film and TV studios and other leading Internet service providers about employing technology, according to sources, that would provide offending users with transactional opportunities to access legal versions of copyright-infringing videos as they're being downloaded.
Comcast is said to be keen on getting content owners and ISPs from outside the conglomerate to join the effort, even for a beta trial that would be concentrated to a limited selection of programs and Internet subscribers. No timetable has been set, however.
As sources described the new system, a consumer illegally downloading a film or movie from a peer-to-peer system like Bittorrent would be quickly pushed a pop-up message with links to purchase or rent the same content, whether the title in question exists on the VOD library of a participating distributor's own broadband network or on a third-party seller like Amazon.
The new approach would be an alternative to the Copyright Alert System, a voluntary initiative many leading programmers and distributors like Comcast have been utilizing since February. Other CAS participants include AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Cablevision, as well as all studios affiliated with MPAA.
Also informally known as the "six strikes" initiative, CAS issues warnings to subscribers engaging in copyright infringement as many as six times before the ISP can actively impede their bandwidth.
While Comcast is among the prominent distributors and programmers who participate in CAS as a member of Center for Copyright Information, this new system is not a CCI initiative. That said, CCI has been notified of Comcast's interests and could eventually step in to become part of its implementation.
While sources familiar with the new initiative emphasized that it is being seen as a complement to CAS and not a replacement, the very emergence of an alternative raises questions as to the viability of CAS, which has been criticized for myriad reasons ranging from the questionable strategic rationale of punishing subscribers to an implementation that has been characterized as scattershot. How the two systems would coexist is unclear.
But the Obama Administration has been supportive of CAS. Earlier this year, White House-appointed copyright czar Victoria Espinel singled out the initiative as a positive step toward copyright enforcement that didn't require government intervention.
Just last week, France moved to downscale Hadopi, a system similar to CAS, the first of its kind worldwide. After three years of implementation and heavy criticism, Hadopi will now fine offending subscribers instead of blocking Internet access after repeated warnings.
Using pirated content as a platform to drive legal transactions reflects an alternate philosophy regarding copyright infringement, one that sees the illegal activity less as a crime that requires punishment and more as lead generation to a consumer whose behavior is borne out of inadequate legitimate digital content options.
CAS and the new approach share a basic framework in that the ISP role is largely automated, notifying offending users based on information derived from the content companies who have a third party pulling the IP addresses of those downloading copyright-infringing material.
But there are a few crucial differences: With the new conversion strategy, the notification would occur in real time. Though not instantaneous, it would be a good deal faster than CAS, which sends subscribers e-mails, voicemails or browser-based messages that can occur weeks after the alleged piracy takes place.
Comcast is also hoping the new approach has a more educational impact than CAS, which sources indicate has provided Comcast with subscriber feedback suggesting it is ineffective in that respect. Encouraging legal transactions could also be a better tack to take with the segment of consumers unknowingly pirating from illegal websites with design interfaces so slick they confuse users into thinking they are legitimate sources for content.
The CAS website, to which alerts link back to, has a section that lists various legal digital content options but that information is neither delivered in real time nor is it targeted on a title-by-title basis.
Under the new plan, ISPs wouldn't get a cut of revenue derived from the transactions they drive to legal third-party sites, a referral arrangement fairly typical on the Internet.
While that may keep Comcast from deriving incremental economic benefit, the new system would still help combat congestion on its broadband network and help drive usage to Xfinity, the MSO's vast collection of VOD titles available on digital platforms.
Comcast has nearly 40% share of the broadband market among cable operators, totaling approximately 20 million subscribers.
While Comcast knows the solution is feasible, the company's engineers haven't formally begun work on it. The project is being worked on in tandem with engineers at NBC Universal, the content side of the conglomerate.
Comcast comes to the piracy problem with a vested interest in more ways than one. In addition to being one of the leading providers of broadband Internet in the U.S., the company also owns a movie studio, Universal Pictures, and myriad broadcast and cable TV channels from NBC to E!. Programmers have long complained that the value of their content has been undermined by copyright infringement.
A strategic shift from Comcast isn't merely some isolated, unilateral action. On an issue like piracy that counts on collaborative effort across industries, the action taken by the biggest player at the table tends to be an influential move. What's more, the company is openly courting other companies to get involved in the experiment.
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