TL;DR – Staggered release dates, lack of competition, geoblocking and the Australia Tax, and lack of government want to fix.
At some point this week because of either John Wick 2 or Lego Batman there will inevitably be a news story about the high rate of piracy. It is something you hear about every year like clockwork when the next Game of Thrones season starts, or when film companies stagger release dates like they are doing here. However, why is Australia such an outlier when it comes to piracy? We are a prosperous country, with a good economy comparatively speaking, we have laws against it, and our internet is not even that good making piracy that little bit harder than it is in many other countries, but inevitably any conversation about piracy generally ends up focusing on Australia. So today we are going to look at the factors unique to Australia, or at least not as prevalent in other markets, that have led to this high statistic. Now of course just to be on the safe side and to make sure there is no confusion when we talk about piracy we are not talking about the boarding and stealing of naval vessels for commercial gain, we are talking about the acquiring of copies of digital media (movies, TV shows, music, and video games) without purchasing the product, usually through peer-to-peer torrent networks.
Now of course before we move forward it is necessary for us to clarify tone thing. We at TL;DR Reviews do not condone piracy, it is a form of theft, and it is also against the laws of Australia, most countries in the world, and indeed international law. Today what we will be doing is exploring some of the motivations behind why people pirate content in Australia but we are not condoning that behaviour, even if we are critical of the circumstances that help perpetuate it.
One of the big mistakes that media companies engage in that inevitably encourages piracy in this globalised and connected world we live in is too excessively stagger release dates. While this is something that happens less and less these days with the music and video game industries, hell even Nintendo does mostly worldwide releases of Pokémon these days (bar Europe for some reason). However, while this is one factor that is becoming less and less common as time goes on, it still regularly happens in Australia. Most frequently this is something that occurs with regards to television here in Australia, now it is generally not as bad as it was back in the 1990s where it was common to have a Christmas in July week as it took six months before we got The Nanny Christmas episode, or when we did get Stargate SG1/Atlantis it was shown out of order by Channel 7, but it still is a problem today. For example SBS aired the latest episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine a month after it aired in the USA (Editors Note: the second half of the season was fast-tracked on the same day), or Chanel Nine showing Planet Earth II over three months after it aired on the BBC, indeed Graham Spencer did a break down on Australian Television Availability for Reckoner and while not a scientific study as such, it shows a good cross example of what life is like for Australian consumers, with only 23% of shows surveyed getting a same day release. While the delay is getting slightly better with shows like Game of Thrones airing on the same day as the USA (though we will come back to that later), and ABC Australia releasing Doctor Who digitally at the same time as the UK, it still is a major issue. As well as this being a problem for Australian consumers of television, it is still an issue for movie consumers as well.
While it took X-Men in 2000 to finally push this in motion, today most blockbusters come out in Australia at the same time as the USA or at most a week or so later. This is good for everyone, local distributors and cinemas get a bump with the global media talking about the movie they are about to show, consumers, get to see the movie they want to see before the internet spoils it (let me stop you here if you are about to make the internet is optional argument in 2017, please), and it removes one of the strongest argument people who pirate media make. However, just this week we have two examples of movies being inexplicably delayed for no good reason. First, we have Lego Batman which was released in the USA on the 10th of February, but not released in Australia until the 30th of March. While this staggered release date is itself is problematic, and not just because Lego Batman was made in Australia by local studio Animal Logic, it is also problematic because the distributors Village Roadshow is making the same mistake again. While the probable reason for the delay was to have it synch up with school holidays, this is not the first time this issue has happened. In 2014 Village Roadshow did the same thing with the first Lego Movie releasing it two months later in Australia and as Luke Hopewell & Rae Johnston reported for Gizmodo on Village Roadshow’s decision and the Lego Batman delay the co-CEO of Village Roadshow Graham Burke estimated that the decision to stagger the release date of The Lego Movie lost the company “somewhere between $3.5 and $5 million in sales”. Indeed Burke admitted that “We made one hell of a mistake with LEGO”, and it seems also with Lego Batman as well. Another case study for this week is John Wick Chapter 2 which was released in America on the 10th of February and still does not have a confirmed release date in Australia with local distributor tweeting “JW2 is currently undated until confirmed with cinemas. We’ll let you know as soon as we know” though it looks like it will not be until April. Australia was the third largest foreign market for the first John Wick according to BoxOfficeMojo and would have been a good option for those wanting to avoid the 50 Shades Darker rubbish which would have been its only competitor. Now back in the days of physical media this could almost be understandable, but today when projectors are digital practices like this only make piracy more appealing and allowing the arguments against piracy to come off sounding hollow when companies don’t implement simple fixes to limit it.
Another feature of the Australian market that promotes piracy is the lack of competition in the Pay TV (Cable TV) Market. In Australia when Pay TV launched in 1995 there were two main players Optus and Foxtel (part owned by News Corporation), with Austar being the main player in the regional markets. However, since 2002 Foxtel has been the main player with Optus not really being a competitor since 2009, as well as this, in 2012 Foxtel also acquired Austar. This has created a monopoly in the Pay TV market and to cut a long explanation of the role of competition and market, the end point is that this is not good for consumers, as there is limited external pressure to make things better for consumers. This has meant that Foxtel has alleged to have created complicated systems that hide their tier one products like Game of Thrones (yes I said we would be back here) behind multiple layers that consumers might not want, as was parodied by The Checkout. This has been amplified by Foxtel cutting off other legal methods like purchasing Game of Thrones through iTunes and Google Play, and providing less than great service, or at least less than convenient service as Mark Serrels documented in an article for Kotaku Australia. This might be one area that will be changing over the next year or so with the introduction of Netflix to Australia, which with its low price point and more convenient access compared to Foxtel and thus may be introducing more competition into the market as it stands this is a still a major issue and source of a lot of the piracy in Australia.
While staggered release dates are not just an Australian issue, and there are issues with Cable TV monopolies across North America, both of these issues are compounded by the infamous Australia Tax. The Australia Tax is the artificial inflation of the price of goods (games, TV shows, music, movies, etc.) well above the normal currency conversion. Take for example the upcoming Nintendo Switch console which (at the time of writing) has a regular retail price of $299 in the USA and $465.95 in Australia (approximately $350 US). Now while there are other factors at play with pricing, shipping of physical goods, storing them in physical stores/warehouses, etc that will increase the price above just a simple currency conversion, the Australia Tax exists even when looking at digital only products which have none of those extra costs. For example, Civilization 6 is $US 59.99 on the American Steam store and $US 69.95 on the Australian Steam store, Grand Theft Auto 5 is $US 59.99 on the American Steam store and $US 74.99 on the Australian Steam store, this markup can be found on most digital platforms. This Australia Tax is so bad that a local consumer affairs group Choice has set up a guide for Australians as to how to get around a site’s Geoblocking to get the better price.
All of these factors are compounded by a government at the moment that insists on treating the symptoms whilst ignoring the cause. While there have been some steps to acknowledge these issues including the Australian Tax with the House Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications’ At what cost? IT pricing and the Australia tax report. This report found that products from companies like Adobe had an average difference of 42%, and included recommendations like “That the Australian Government investigate the feasibility of amending the Competition and Consumer Act so that contracts or terms of service which seek to enforce geoblocking are considered void”. However, there has been little appetite to engage with this by the government, with the current government focusing more on blocking access to popular torrent sites. For example, a recent Federal Court ruling required local internet providers to block access to several popular torrent sites, which as one commentator put it the ruling was ‘Laughably Easy to Circumvent’
So when you see this week a news article about Lego Batman or John Wick 2, or if you wait a bit for the first week of Game of Thrones and how Australian are pirating it at record levels, you can now know what some of the factors are that contribute to this. There will always be someone who downloads it because they want something for free, but most people are more than happy to pay to access legal content if it is fairly priced and convenient to access, as the recent uptake of Netflix shows and by taking simple steps of addressing some of these issues it would dramatically reduce the rate of piracy in Australia. This is good for the companies that make media content, good for the people who work at companies making media content, and good for the consumer.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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