I've just finished watching Michael Moore's latest, Sicko, at home. Free, over the Net. Last week I spent an afternoon with Freaks And Geeks, and a month ago I caught up on the Family Guy shows I missed over the past season.
This is just a small sample of the free media I've been enjoying since I discovered TV Links (www.tv-links.co.uk). It feels surreal to enter this portal to every TV show, movie, cartoon and documentary conceivable. It's like walking into a museum where you can actually touch everything, new and old, from the latest episodes of The Office to more Silver Spoons than a Buffalo channel's marathon. Revisit The Lost Boys and then get CGI'd with The Transformers.
One of the best features of TV Links, like many of its copycats, is its ability to simply stream movies and shows. There's no downloading required, since TV Links is exactly what its name means: a links hub that redirects to another site's content, whether it's Sicko on Google Video or Fraggle Rock on YouTube. Quite ingeniously, TV Links avoids legal hassles since it's not offering downloads or torrents à la BitTorrent.
Sites with streaming video of copywritten material are pleasing everyone but the film industry. Hollywood slaps lawsuits on university students downloading Blades Of Glory, so it must be frothing at the mere mention of TV Links.
And it's not sitting on its hands. At the end of June, the Motion Picture Association of America filed lawsuits against YouTVpc.com and Peekvid.com, two sites that allegedly post links to pirated movies and shows.
The MPAA has to prove how an index of available links constitutes a crime related to piracy. It won't be easy. But whoever wins will likely reshape how people use the Net for entertainment.
Even the new owners of YouTube are deep in the middle of the mess, whether they like it or not. Google Video is known to include pirated content, a fact made even more public July 10 when the New York-based National Legal and Policy Center released a list of the top 50 videos found on Google Video. It was a publicity stunt to raise awareness of piracy, but it smacked of a warning shot. Hollywood's lawyers already have YouTube's execs on speed dial, so it's only a matter of time before streaming vids are in the middle of a legal war.
But should it get that far? Even though I watched Knocked Up on TV Links, I heard too many audience coughs to get into it. It's hard to replace the manufactured experience. TV Links does a decent job for a free site, but I'm still going to go to cinemas. I'll still buy DVDs. TV Links attracts filmgoers on their off-days, even though many Netizens will contend they only watch new flicks online.
Sites like TV Links aren't Canadian, but we still get the blame - for piracy, of course. Last month Warner Bros. announced it would cancel all promotional screenings in Canada, an attempt to send a clear message to our government: criminalize camcording in Canadian cinemas.
Whether or not those in power are frightened by those who entertain, Hollywood got its way. The Canadian government is considering stiff penalties for recording movies in theatres: five-year prison terms.
Pirated movies cost major U.S. film studios more than $6 billion in 2005, the MPAA has declared. Hollywood screens intros in cinemas about stuntmen who need their jobs in California, and won't you stop downloading films, will ya, pretty please?
It's almost laughable to see how desperate Hollywood has become in the face of an enemy it doesn't understand and can't pinpoint on a map. (Sound familiar?)
The latest sign of hysteria is almost surreal. To protect new forms of high-definition discs like HD-DVD and Blu-ray, movie studios have embedded anti-copying protection in these next-generation discs. When a hacker finds the password to a high-def DVD, the industry answers by changing the password and forcing users to download new software. Honest consumers even have to check for password updates, because the consequence is not just a useless disc: anyone who pops one of the high-def discs into their computer without installing a software upgrade will find it destroys the computer's ability to play any high-definition DVD at all.
So Hollywood gets back at movie pirates by saddling everyone with a self-destruct button? And suing sites like TV Links that are chockful of nutritious goodies like the HBO-only Curb Your Enthusiasm is just mindless retaliation. Hollywood should learn from how the best music companies learned to work with the Web instead of drop-kicking it. If Hollywood stops turning its consumers into suspects, the public may actually warm up to legit films.
Then again, isn't this what we wanted out of the Net? Digital democracy takes many forms, even if it feels like dipping your hand in the cookie jar at first.