Peer-to-peer delivery was a major theme at a London conference on digital distribution for film and television. While technology can provide low-cost global distribution, issues of rights, licensing and regulation remain as complex as ever.

Peer-to-peer delivery was a major theme at a London conference on digital distribution for film and television. While technology can provide low-cost global distribution, issues of rights, licensing and regulation remain as complex as ever.

Kevin Baughan, head of technology strategy at UK cable operator NTL:Telewest described an experiment to accelerate downloads using a peer-to-peer delivery system augmented with a server from CacheLogic.

Anecdotal evidence suggested that this provided greatly improved download times, but the trial involved only 200 users with a single server, so it was hardly representative of a real-world scenario.

The main objective was to provide more predictable delivery times for peer-to-peer downloads, which can be very variable. Kevin suggested one possible commercial model for quality of service based on a pizza delivery model: “If you don’t get it within 20 minutes it’s free”.

Tom Carroux of BitTorrent, now a venture capital backed company based in San Francisco, said that the NTL trial using BitTorrent was significant in that it accepts P2P as a legitimate distribution medium.

He described various innovations that are being applied to a commercial software client, including provision for progressive downloads and drag-and-drop self-publishing tools.

BitTorrent has also licensed its software for use in a number of home storage devices that will offer audio-visual outputs, creating a new category of consumer media storage networking device.

Tom acknowledged that the BitTorrent brand, which has been associated with illicit distribution of copyright material, was “a double-edged sword,” but with 70 million downloads, it gave them access to studio executives to discuss its use for legitimate distribution.

Robert Mayer of PeerApp was also very optimistic about peer-to-peer, arguing that existing content distribution networks, such as Akamai and Limelight are too expensive and simply cannot scale to meet rising demand.

Peer-to-peer is also capable of being used for live streaming, particularly in China where it is used for the illicit distribution of services. In Europe, Octoshape was a company that was mentioned several times, notably for streaming the Eurovision Song Contest.

David Wood, head of new media at the European Broadcasting Union, seemed impressed, saying that its promise had been demonstrated in their tests.

Peter Davies, director of radio and multimedia at Ofcom, spoke about the proposed revisions to the European Television Without Frontiers directive, which could cover some services delivered over the internet. Ofcom does not currently regulate the content of internet services and he stated that “Ofcom does not believe the current statutory model of regulation can be extended to cover the internet.”

On the other hand, David Wood summarised the EBU position that “just because you cannot regulate the internet perfectly does not mean you should not do it at all”.

The issues of rights were also discussed. Ingrid Silver of law firm Denton Wilde Sapte provided a practical approach to the contractual element of licensing rights across multiple platforms.

Megan Goodwin-Patel of Interactive Rights Management, a company which advises on the exploitation of rights, suggested an approach she termed ‘slicensing,’ by which rights are sliced and diced to maximise commercial opportunities. The downside appeared to be the co-ordination required and the loss of economies of scale and integration across platforms, formats and territories.

Marla Shapiro, from the MCPS-PRS Alliance of music rights organisations in the UK, described the apparently obsolete concepts of ‘mechanical’ and ‘performing’ rights that currently apply to music distribution. In a world of global distribution, the parochial approach of licensing by territory seems outmoded. The alliance is looking to establish a pan-European licensing model, but the current situation appears to favour global music publishing and distribution companies.

Tor Molmen of Canal Digital in Norway, now wholly-owned by the telecommunication company Telenor, talked about disruptive distribution models and warned “We’re in for a new revolution”. He also advised: “Don’t ask consumers what they want — they don’t know,” which could be a useful lesson for those involved in marketing and product development.

He suggested that we are moving from “pay and zap to find and play”. Disruptive technologies such as web video could rapidly reach a tipping point and so bypass traditional distributors: “When it happens it will happen extremely quickly”.

Services, he suggested, would not be distinguished by premium content. He drew an analogy with the supermarket Tesco, which effectively acts as an aggregator. The majority of the items it provides are effectively similar to those of other supermarket brands. Tesco distinguishes itself in other dimensions.

Tor also made the important point that sport, movies and music are consumed in different ways and have different values to the user. They are not the same product, so they should not be sold on the same business model.

Mark Livingstone of Arts Alliance Media was a founder of LOVEFiLM in the UK, a provider of online DVD rentals that is moving towards a video-on-demand model. Earlier in the year LOVEFiLM merged with Video Island, and Arts Alliance now provides video-on-demand and electronic sell-through services to the company, as well as powering 240 digital cinemas in the UK.

Currently the company provides only around 1,000 titles for download — still about as good as it gets for video-on-demand –, but aims to offer 10,000 within three years, although it will face competition from the likes of Amazon, which recently entered the market.

Mark noted that obscure material from the long tail of back catalogue titles performed in some instances almost half as well as major block busters, suggesting that it is not all about having the latest Hollywood hits.

While rental is seen as a great way to get people into the service, electronic sell-through is the ultimate objective. “I think download to burn will be adopted by every major studio within a year,” he predicted. He also pointed to a “huge opportunity” with portable video players.

Digital Distribution for Film and TV was a two-day conference organised by Osney Media which took place in London, 25-26 September 2006.