First it was CD. Then it was DVD. Now, it is cable-TV.
Recently, a couple of specialized computer programs have been developed to allow P2P streaming of cable-TV contents, such as ESPN and Discovery Channel, over the Internet. Anyone can now log on to the internet and watch ESPN without paying a dime to a cable-TV operator or ESPN.
Cable-TV streaming is not rocket science. The equipments required are a TV capture card, a personal computer and a reasonable broadband Internet connection. A subscriber of ESPN, for example, connects his set-top box to a personal computer through the TV capture card. Then the personal computer, running specialized computer programs, coverts cable-TV contents into Internet protocol (IP) data and broadcasts (streams) out to the Internet. The personal computer is now a broadcasting server.
Amateurs actually have been doing this for quite some years in a small scale. It could not be scaled in the past because of network congestion issue. When there are many viewers connecting to the server, the server will not be able to handle the requests. The broadband Internet connection will be clogged. A regular server usually can only handle five to ten connections.
What is different this time is that the new generation of video streaming technology takes a page from P2P technology, like those being used in Napster and Skype. The subscriber’s server does not connect to all viewers directly. When a viewer streams data from the subscriber’s server to his own personal computer to watch the pirated cable-TV content, the viewer’s personal computer becomes a server as well. The next viewer can choose to connect to the new server or the original server. This alleviates clogging the original server. This is like all leafs connecting to the same root through multiple branches. The traffic congestion problem disappears.
The most used P2P streaming programs are PPLive (www.PPLive.com) and Coolstreaming (www.coolstreaming.org). Not surprisingly, both programs come from China, where the enforcement of copyrights is sometimes challenging. Currently, most contents streamed through PPLive and Coolstreaming are in Chinese by capturing content from TV and cable-TV stations. Some of the contents are originally from the US and UK, but with Chinese translation or sub-title.
Streaming vs. copying
The copyright enforcement of P2P streaming is more challenging than copying files from a CD or DVD. Streaming, unlike copying, does not leave a trace. For example, when a song is copied from a CD, the song must be stored in an iPod. If the iPod is used as an evidence, the judge will have little problem to rule copyright infringement against the iPod owner. On the other hand, streaming usually only leaves five to twenty seconds of music or video data on a personal computer. This will make evidence collection difficult.
To make the legal matter worse, the same copy of cable-TV content is viewed by the viewers a few seconds or minutes apart. This is because IP data takes time to travel from one computer to another computer. The pirated cable-TV content will rarely stay in two or more personal computers at any instant. The situation is similar to a twenty seconds long VHS tape being watched by personal A, person B, and person C in sequence without making any extra copy.
The Achilles Heel
There is one Achilles Heel for cable-TV pirating over P2P streaming. An viewer must locate a server before he can stream the pirated cable-TV content. There needs to exist a master to store the locations of the servers. Although the master itself does not need to store the content of capture the TV signal, the master will have a record of who is acting like a branch. This is similar to the original Napster design.
Law enforcement can then go after the master or the branches. But what if the master or the branches are located out the jurisdiction of the law enforcement? This is exactly how PP2Live takes advantages of the Chinese IPR systems. On the contrary, Coolstreaming, located in Hong Kong, is shut-down due to threat of copyright infringements.
The genie of P2P streaming for multimedia content is out of the bottle now. It will probably stay out forever. We should not blindly scorn this technology. There are two questions in front of us.
The first question is how we can protect cable-TV operators’ and content providers’ interests.
The second question is how we take advantage of this low-cost alternative to distribute real-time multimedia traffic.
Quick and technically feasible answers to these two questions may create new industries with a new business model.
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