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Film's monopoly problem with digital

Not before time, the new year started with some promising news about selling films online. For the first time, the annual decline in DVD and Blu-ray sales in the US has been outstripped by the growth in digital sales, rentals and subscriptions. Home entertainment rose 0.7% in 2013 (PDF source). $6.5bn – over a third of total consumer spending – came from digital rental, retail and subscriptions, with download-to-own rising a hefty 48% on 2012. The figures don’t even include subscriptions bundled with other services (like a cable company’s deal with Netflix) or advertising-supported VOD like Hulu or YouTube.

Of course, a chunk of this growth has been for television and traditional film, and the biggest beneficiaries continue to be the studios and large rights owners. For independents – as Scott Harris detailed in his frank description of the struggles self-distributing Being Ginger – digital distribution is typically a lot of work for limited gains. Why is this?……

Decentralisation supports independence

In trying to untangle the cause of this, it seems a key factor has to lie within the nature of the technology involved. HTML, powering the web, is open and easy for anyone to play with, so far as with text and images. Publishing, blogging, web stores and so forth are relatively straightforward to achieve on your own website, and HTML was designed from the start to support both text and images. Running your own TV channel or film distribution service requires much more bandwidth, software and skills (with video supported natively by HTML only more recently) so it’s easier and cheaper to use a centralised service that takes care of it all. Likewise, social networks offering a single login or sites storing your credit card details: the basic architecture of the web doesn't handle secure payments or user identity consistently, so proprietary companies like Facebook or PayPal can come to dominate those sectors. Any web page can link to any other, but you can only friend people within the same social network, or watch films within the same subscription service.