Your online life is an embarrassment of media riches. You can hear virtually every song ever recorded through Spotify, or jump onto YouTube and find a million covers and mashups. You can watch every show on cable from anywhere on the planet with an app like Sling, then open Netflix or Hulu and see everything made since the invention of television. Want to binge on all 277 episodes of South Park? Easy. Nostalgic for the black-and-white movies of the ’20s? Filmstruck has your back. Lifetimes upon lifetimes of stuff to watch and listen to are but one login away.
Unless you’re sitting on a plane. Or lying on a remote beach. Or simply out of data. It’s even worse if you live in a place like India, where connectivity can be very expensive and very hard to come by. If you’re offline, you’re out of luck.
Let me provide a rough guide to your downloadabilities: You can download a total of 9,999 Spotify songs, but keep only 3,333 on a single device. Amazon Video lets you download 15 or 25 things, depending upon your location. Netflix’s terms are less clear, but limit the number of downloads you can have, the number of times you can download something, and the number of devices you can download it too—and it varies with each title. Hulu and HBO don’t do downloads at all. And not one service lets you download whatever you want, as much as you want, whenever you want.
The way it ought to work seems so simple. Paying customers should have access to all of the content a service offers, anywhere and everywhere you want, in whatever format you want. You can blame product and security challenges for some of this, but the biggest problem is the ongoing legal cage match those who make content and those who distribute it.
What the world really needs is a DVR for the internet. That may happen sooner than you think, but until then, that limitless library of all the world’s media comes with one big asterisk: Bandwidth required.
Cache Me If You Can
So what gives? Well, let’s say you’re a movie studio. We’ll call you Warner Bros. You’ve spent millions of dollars and many years making a movie. We’ll call it, I don’t know, The Dark Knight. You need to recoup all those costs, and, ideally, make a whole bunch of money. If you sell the movie whole-hog to Netflix, you get one big check, and that’s all. So you definitely don’t do that.
Instead, you slice the movie as many ways as possible, to extract as much money as possible, all the while retaining ownership so that when new services come out, you can make money from them as well. You want to sell theater tickets, of course. Maybe HBO pays for a month’s exclusive access once the film leaves theaters. You put it on a few of those hotel-chain networks, and sell theater and cable distribution rights in every country you can think of. Someone gets DVD and Blu-ray rights. You sell on-demand rights to iTunes and Comcast, and streaming-on-demand rights to Hulu and Amazon. Then maybe you go back to Starz and let it have exclusive access for awhile, then spend a month airing every night on TBS, before settling into a nice long life of broad availability. Until someone like Facebook or go90 comes along with a dump truck full of money to play your movie on a gazillion phones.
So then Netflix comes along to say, “Hey, Warner Bros, we want to let people download your movie and watch it offline.” But subscribers won’t pay anything more for offline playback, so Netflix doesn’t want to give you any more money. You don’t want to sign those rights over, because someone might come along with an all-you-can-download subscription service and pay you for the privilege later.
All of which is to say, content creators have no financial incentive to change things. “If I’m bundling in free download rights,” says one lawyer who represents this type of company, “that’s money I’m not getting.”
Even in so-called “all rights” cases, like those that Netflix signs for much of its original content, downloading isn’t so simple. “With many Netflix originals, we own all the rights to the title and can offer it for download,” its support page says. “However, some TV shows and movies are produced in partnership with a studio that owns the franchise or intellectual property associated with the content. While we may have the necessary rights to offer a title for streaming, we may not be able to offer it for download.” Even when Netflix owns the show, it doesn’t own the show. That’s why you can stream but not download something like The Defenders, promoted as a Netflix Original but still the property of Marvel, ABC Studios, and Disney.
The music world is just as confusing. An entire section of the contract between Sony Music and Spotify from 2011, which leaked a few years ago, covers, in remarkable detail, just what counts as a “cached download” (the technical term of choice) and what Spotify can do with it.
Contractual issues aren’t the only issue here. The simplest explanation for why you can’t download willy-nilly? Piracy.
“The issue is the ease of replicability online,” says Daniel Lyons, a law professor at Boston College. “In the offline world it’s easy, because every time you acquire a copy of the work, you’re also acquiring the physical thing.” Netflix, on the other hand, doesn’t store a copy of Glow on its servers for each of its 100 million users. With the right tech, everyone on earth could effectively watch the same copy. “For the intellectual property community,” Lyons says, “this is like the Worst Thing Ever. Capital letters.”
Studios, record labels, and other creators worry that you’ll download a song or movie, snatch the file off your device, upload it to BitTorrent, and share it with the world. Why would anyone buy it when it’s right there, for free? Never mind that the world already works this way: Game of Thrones is both the most popular and most torrented show on television, and you can find any movie on BitTorrent about 10 minutes after its first theatrical showing. “It’s kind of irrational, honestly,” one streaming service executive tells me. And yet the fear persists.
Digital Rights Management exists precisely to solve this problem. DRM can make sure you’re authorized to watch the movie you’ve downloaded, and that Netflix’s contract for the show hasn’t expired. But DRM, like everything, gets hacked. “For every DRM type authentication procedure that gets developed, hackers will go on and try to develop a way around it,” Lyons says. But, as I said earlier, piracy no longer poses the existential threat it did in the Napster days, thanks in part to Spotify, Netflix, and the like. People happily pay for content if it’s convenient to get.
What studios and labels should fear is something that makes downloading more convenient. The VCR and the DVR both upended the industry by letting people record a show and watch it later. Both won landmark lawsuits ruling that their existence amounted to fair use, that people could record programs and manage them on their own terms. Someone will come along and become the TiVo of the internet, the online DVR for everything you watch and everything you listen to. Someone like PlayOn.
Record Now, Watch Later
PlayOn lets you download and save content from virtually any website. CEO Jeff Lawrence started working on the core technology when he wanted a way of watching Netflix on his Playstation. “There was a ton of stuff that you could watch on a web browser,” he says, but he found watching on a TV too difficult. Eventually that problem went away, as Netflix and Hulu apps grew virtually ubiquitous. At the same time, though, Lawrence started noticing that saving things to watch offline was far too difficult.
PlayOn records in a very specific way. It loads the video in what amounts to an invisible web browser, then captures that video as it plays. It re-encodes that video, and drops it onto your device. It’s not stored as a single file, available for anyone to stream or copy. It’s your file, on your drive, just like a show you saved on TiVo or recorded onto a VHS. “We’ve looked a lot at legal precedent,” Lawrence says. “We’ve looked at when the DVR came to market, and generally speaking, other than some noise, it really wasn’t challenged.”
The cloud DVR has been popular for a while now; you can watch your Comcast-recorded shows from anywhere without much effort. PlayOn, though, is among the first to try making a business from recording Netflix shows. When The Defenders dropped, PlayOn emailed its members, inviting them to download the entire series for 20 cents an episode. (The cost covers PlayOn’s bandwidth bill, which is enormous because it must save a copy of the episode for every user.)
So far, Lawrence says, PlayOn has no real relationships with the streaming giants. “They just need to look the other way” to avoid upsetting content partners, he says. “A very good argument can be made … that we’re good for them.” But those streaming giants ought to watch PlayOn closely. Most people, I’d wager, would rather download stuff through their app instead of needing a third party intermediary. But for people who want or need their shows offline, they’ll find a way.
PlayOn dreams of becoming a universal online TV guide, offering something that looks and feels like a cable box and DVR. The TV industry didn’t like TiVo, and it won’t like this either. It could squash it pretty easily—all it would take is letting you download The Defenders from within Netflix. No one I talked to thinks that’s gonna happen anytime soon. Thank goodness someone’s making TiVo for the internet.