Variety magazine reported earlier this week that Comcast is developing a new scheme for detecting illegal file downloads over its Internet service. When it detects a user downloading content illegally, it will send a message to the user with links to legal alternatives, including from sources that aren’t Comcast properties. This scheme would be independent of the Copyright Alert System (CAS) that launched in the United States earlier this year.
What a difference the right economic incentives make. Comcast has significant incentive for offering carrots instead of sticks: it owns NBC Universal, a major movie studio and TV network. This means that Comcast has incentives to protect content revenue, even if it comes from third parties like iTunes, Netflix, or Amazon. In addition, if Comcast protects its own network from infringers, it has a stronger position from which to negotiate content distribution deals for its own Xfinity-branded services from other major studios.
Comcast will most likely use the same monitoring services as content owners — like NBC Universal, whose people are collaborating on the design of this (as yet unnamed) system — use to detect allegedly infringing downloads. It will be able to send messages to users in close to real time — in contrast to CAS, which processes data about detected downloads through a third party before they get sent to users.
This scheme is reminiscent of one of the earliest uses of fingerprinting technologies in a commercially licensed service: around 2005, a P2P file-sharing network called iMesh cut a deal with the major record labels (or at least some of them). They would allow iMesh to operate its network with audio fingerprinting (supplied by Audible Magic, still a leader in the field). The fingerprinting technology would detect attempts to upload copyrighted music to the network and block them. Instead, iMesh offered copyrighted music files supplied by the labels, encrypted with DRM, for purchase. Given that several other P2P file-sharing networks (such as LimeWire) continued to operate at the time without such restrictions, iMesh wasn’t much of a success.
Comcast is hoping to get other ISPs to adopt similar schemes, presumably both as a service to major content owners and in hopes that this anti-piracy feature doesn’t drive users to its competitors. But that gambit is unlikely to succeed. Of the four other major ISPs in the US — AT&T, Cablevision, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon — none are corporate siblings to major content owners. (Time Warner Cable was spun off from Time Warner in 2009, though it retains the name.) In other words, they won’t have the right incentives.
In contrast, France’s HADOPI scheme is supposed to steer people to legal alternatives by simply giving those services a “seal of approval” that they can use themselves. What Comcast has in mind ought to be more effective. In the world of movies and TV shows, it would be that much more effective if legal services were to offer content with anything like the completeness of record label catalogs offered through legal music services. But that’s another story for another day.