Video is all over the Web, and no wonder. With the advent of superfast broadband connections running at over 5Mbit/sec., widescreen monitors that have finally replaced the boxy CRTs of the past and a plethora of fresh and funny content, there’s a perfect storm for video to gain even more momentum.
Like Napster did for music, site like YouTube.com take “video on demand” to another level. Most of the video content is free for the taking and instantly accessible, although it usually consists of short commercial clips or “funny at the moment” viral videos.
Apple iTunes, Veoh.com, Amazon Unbox and others actually offer real TV shows — for a price.
Meanwhile, the television industry is still trying to figure out how to deal with Web streaming, with the Writers Guild of America striking recently — mostly over rebroadcast royalties.
Adding fuel to the fire: Besides well-known commercial ventures such as Unbox, there are several alternative methods of obtaining the best shows for free. And I’m not talking about BitTorrent or anything like that. Sure, torrents have been around for a while, but they require you to download a client, search for links and share your bandwidth.
It turns out, for every Amazon Unbox, there are 10 more sites that allow you to stream or download shows for free. There is an ongoing debate about the legality of Web sites using contributed video and other content, and experts disagree on much of the language of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which in part addresses the issue. To date, no definitive court decisions have settled the matter, either.
With some licensed content (e.g., Comedy Central shows and a few Paramount Pictures movies) and a plethora of YouTube-like videos, Joost is intended as a television version of Skype. The selection is skin deep and a mile wide: There are videos of young women doing yoga, an Australian food channel and short animated clips that were likely created for an art school credit.
This NBC Universal and News Corp joint venture is still in beta (and access is limited), but Hulu promises to feature full-length episodes akin to the new NBC Direct service. Shows like 24 and The Office will be hallmarks, as long as the service gets off the ground before the reruns start.
TV Freeload is not technically a streaming site or even a torrent distributor. Instead, the site points you to links that allow you to download the latest shows, such as Bionic Woman, Entourage and Weeds. Hosts are usually legitimate file storage such as MegaUpload.com and FileFactory.com, which both have strict policies regarding copyright infringement.
At FileFactory.com, for example, you can click a link to report a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) violation, but a FileFactory representative told me the site has no system to search for and police copyrighted content. Posters can keep changing the URL for hosted shows, and TV Freeload is probably not culpable for the links.
Similar to Joost or Kazaa, Graboid is a Windows program with built-in streaming. The client lets you search for shows like Prison Break and browse through a list of channels, like a local Fox Network affiliate. Graboid isn’t linking to a streaming site (like allyourchannels.com) or merely directing you to downloadable content (like TV Freeload). It’s streaming the actual content.
The site claims that Graboid has the best “speed, selection and quality” and does boast a wide selection of network affiliate channels. However, according to Rob Enderle at the Enderle Group in San Jose, regional affiliates usually don’t license content for broadcast outside of a geographic area because of local advertising agreements. (Graboid itself has a Legal FAQ, but the page was blank at the time of this report. It also has a Copyright Policy page. Graboid offers high-definition and other shows if you sign up for a Gold ($12.97 per month) or Premium ($24.97 per month) membership.
Another downloadable client, TVU provides hundreds of TV streams, most of them not recognizable network channels. You can watch Fox News, Spike and ABC News and a few affiliates, plus old science fiction movies and a few sports channels.
Both Graboid and TVU work like independent TV stations that rebroadcast streams — they aren’t actually hosting content. Still, according to Will Rodger, director of public policy at the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) in Washington, any rebroadcasts of network shows requires a licensing agreement. “It is not OK to send programming out to the public Internet that has not been licensed for such purposes,” says Rodger. “Anyone distributing entire, copyrighted works has to have the permission of the copyright holder.”
“The DMCA gives the MPAA and [the Recording Industry Association of America] broad latitude over who you can hang,” says Enderle. “There’s an ongoing effort to legitimize network and content owner involvement in copyright over streaming.”
John Brandon is a freelance writer and book author who worked as an IT manager for 10 years.