All Articles

Principles for an online film distribution system

There are a couple of articles today in the Observer on the topic of illegal film downloads and in particular how to ensure the revenue of the small British film industry can be protected in the face of the “something-for-nothing” culture of the youth. This made me give some thought to what I think would make a good digital film consumption system for the future.

The main problem that the industry has correctly observed is that of online piracy. There are plenty of articles online explaining why this has become so pervasive, but this post will instead discuss some principles that a commercial service ought to incorporate to make consumers happy and persuade them to part with cash.


It is no good introducing a new film download or streaming service that is not simple to use. By simple I mean that anyone, no matter their expertise, should be able to use it. Finding content should be incredibly simple using a single search box, but meta-data should allow simple navigation between related films. This leads on to my next issue:


For such a service to thrive, it has to avoid frustration. If someone wants to watch a specific film and it isn’t available, that is a significant problem. The more times this happens, the less likely the user is to come back. What is the point in an online film watching service where you can’t find the films you want to watch? This ties in with simplicity - users should not have to sign up to multiple services in order to watch all the content they are interested in. On the other hand there ought to be multiple services for accessing the content, to allow for competition on pricing and features. As long as each service offers enough of a distinction from the others, this is not a problem.


Any new online film service needs to be cross platform and unrestrictive from the perspective of the customers. By this I mean that films should be viewable on mobile platforms such as iOS and Android (in particular on tablets), as well as on traditional PCs running any operating system, and importantly on any set-top boxes with internet connectivity (people do still want to use their nice big TVs for watching films!). The issue that causes problems in this area is digital rights management (DRM) and this in turn persuades people to go down the illegal route.

Lack of perceived restrictions (DRM free content)

When someone buys a film on a DVD, they feel they have some ownership of the artefact. They may not have the rights of the producers, but they have the ability to watch it on their own terms. No technology introduced by the film industry after the humble DVD seems to give people this same sense of control. Blu-ray players feature a complex DRM system that needs access to the internet to keep it up to date. Online film purchasing is often infested with DRM and even when this is not the case, there is a perception that it is. When a consumer is confident that they can buy a film online, download it and watch it at their leisure on any device of their choosing, without restriction, then one of the big incentives to download illegally will have been removed. The music industry seems to have caught on to this, with online sales now apparently growing healthily.

When it comes to online rental, then DRM in some form will be necessary to stop the user playing the content after a certain period. At present the best solution to this seems to be using Adobe Flash to stream videos using a special protocol. The alternative is a file format with DRM to prevent playback after a certain period (the iTunes approach). Neither of these is particularly attractive unless the price is very low.


When a consumer buys a DVD or CD, they get something physical for their money. Not only can they play it at their will, but they have something tangible that won’t just self-destruct. There is also a level of confidence that the format will still be playable in the future. An issue that some people take into account is the ability to sell or give away their DVDs and CDs when they no longer want them. In short: there is some value to their purchase.

Online purchasing does not give the same perception of value. The cost of buying an album ought to be cheaper than buying the CD, with its better audio quality and cost of manufacture. Yet it is often the case that online media costs the same or more than physical media. This is difficult to understand from a consumer’s point of view and to a certain extent it reduces trust in the provider (“are they ripping us off?”). Therefore any online film purchasing system has to be cheaper than going out and buying the same content on physical media.

Who will do this?

I don’t think any service meeting all these principles will arrive imminently. It will take some time to persuade the big stakeholders that these principles would provide an incentive to stop illegally downloading. At the moment the line of enquiry taken is to look at blocking access to file sharing services and to take people to court over alleged file sharing. This has been provably counter productive and costly for the industry. If someone can build a commercial system that meets the principles outlined in this post, then we are on to something. Unfortunately capitalism tends to get in the way. But one example of a system which ought to be possible with films is that of Valve’s Steam. If a simular platform for films could be made ubiquitous (cross platform) and give convenience, simplicity, choice and value, then the future of online film sales would look promising.