iCrave a decision

In the technology industry, we measure performance in either real time or “Internet time.” The government, on the other hand, is working from a timetable all its own.

Last week, a new bill to take on some of the more intricate aspects of copyright protection was presented in Parliament. This bill, if passed into law, will attempt to set the record straight regarding the extent to which the sort of compulsory licences that are used by cable and satellite companies apply to Internet broadcasters. Until now, it’s been up in the air. Online service providers have argued they are legally allowed to transmit TV programming as long as they pay the same royalty fees as their cable and satellite counterparts. Traditional broadcasters live in fear of this idea, naturally, while online companies feel as though they are being denied the right to compete in an open market.

The Montreal-based company leading the fight, JumpTV, stands to make Internet history if it gets the government to treat the Web like any other broadcasting vehicle. While that scenario seems highly unlikely, its lobbying effort has kept this issue on the agenda long after its predecessor, iCraveTV, gave up hope.

There were probably many people in the Department of Canadian Heritage and Indutsry who were happy to see iCrave TV shut down on the basis of copyright infringement last year. The company made headlines by streaming VHF channels on its Web page and wrapping advertising around it. Not surprisingly, the courts stepped in with a restraining order, even though iCraveTV said it could use Digital Island’s Traceware to block the transmissions to viewers outside Canada. The idea seemed to be that Canada’s licensing structure was such that companies like iCraveTV were on a par with a satellite broadcaster, even though everyone knows the licenses for satellite were not designed with technologies like the Internet in mind.

In June, spurred on by JumpTV, the government launched a formal review of the law governing Internet broadcasts of TV channels. This review is no doubt what informed last week’s bill, which reportedly places the Internet outside the traditional licencing sphere. That doesn’t bode well for JumpTV, because it means it will take more than just tariffs to rebroadcast the TV programs.

There was a time when the Internet seemed too new for a government agency to step in with any kind of rules. For one thing, no one was sure whether or not they could be enforced. In the iCraveTV case, for example, 57 per cent of its audience was said to be American because AOL subscribers based in Toronto were identified through AOL’s address in Virginia. Even with the best technology — and there are a number of alternatives, like Quova, which can provide geo-tracking — there are some potential loopholes around the legislation. The real headaches, of course, are the intellectual property rights involved here, particularly in this post-Napster age. Governments are scared to screw this up.

Well, too bad. Making difficult decisions over complex issues is what governments are elected to do. The Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission has already been allowed to duck responsibility for far too long. Whether or not they get what they want, companies like JumpTV deserve an answer on the viability of their business model. The government’s decision may not be right, and it might not stick. But it will push the debate farther than it has gotten so far, and perhaps compel governments in other countries to take this challenge more seriously.

sschick@plesman.com

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