Why Streaming is not the Answer

Science fiction author, blogger extraordinaire, and digital rights champion Cory Doctorow has an essay up at the Guardian site that explores in detail a point we have discussed here previously, and that is what the relationship is between streaming and downloading content, and what are the possible ramifications of a trend that emphasizes streaming over other forms of distribution (see YouTube, Hulu, Spotify, Last.fm, etc.).

Doctorow is flat-out brilliant and pretty much anything he writes is worth reading, and this most recent contribution is no exception.  He ably sketches what he sees as a growing consensus among content distributors that streaming is the answer to their problems with piracy, since, in theory at least, a streamed piece of media is not saved on a local hard drive, and the customer must then go back to the distributor for repeat viewings (sales), and cannot then distribute the content themselves to their friends or the Pirate Bay.

As anyone with much technical savvy knows, however, streaming and downloading are basically the same thing, it’s just that the streamed content is not supposed to be saved.  Users have worked around these kinds of restrictions for as long as streamed content has been around, and I personally used a number of programs to capture Real audio streams of Internet radio shows back before pod-casts became standard.  There are currently dozens of applications, plug-ins, widgets, you name it, to capture YouTube video, and if enough people were interested, I’m sure there will be some for Hulu as well.

As Doctorow eloquently explains, if big media companies do actually believe in the streaming “illusion” then they are in for a shock, and as with so much else, their clumsy legal attempts to make their wishes come true will likely so harm to all Internet users.  Not to mention the incredible inefficiency and network strain a world of constant streaming would create.

One area, however, where I think the media companies may have more reason for optimism with streaming than Doctorow believes is with video.  Music and video may diverge more strongly in regards to streaming than in other aspects of digital distribution.  While storage is getting cheaper every day, high definition video remains relatively sizeable, and generally there is not as much repetition as with music, decreasing the inherent inefficiency of streaming.

Less mobile consumption of video, away from reliable network bandwidth also allows for more streaming advantages in this area, as I think YouTube and Hulu are demonstrating.  Regardless of what actually serves user needs best, however, Doctorow is absolutely correct that the big content companies will continue to push for business and legal frameworks that serve their own interests first, at the cost of our own privacy and access to innovative technology.