Page last updated at 16:48 GMT, Monday, 9 February 2009

We want information, here and now

Stop sign (Getty)
The information superhighway has a few intersections at country borders

Old agreements on content distribution no longer work, says Bill Thompson.

When I heard that full episodes of The Prisoner TV series were available online I immediately headed over to the AMC website to wallow in nostalgic enjoyment and remind myself just how cool Patrick McGoohan was as he stumbled around Portmeirion trying to avoid a big plastic ball.

I'm old enough to have watched it the first time around and remember the shock we all felt at the last episode, so I was looking forward to revisiting a few episodes without having to make the effort to borrow the full DVD box set from somewhere.

I would happily have watched online and let AMC advertise to me in return, but sadly it was not to be. When I got to The Prisoner page on its site I saw only an unfriendly message, shouting at me in uppercase that:


I wasn't that surprised. My efforts to watch the online-only "webisodes" for Battlestar Galactica, where one of the Cylons is called Number Six in homage to McGoohan, were similarly frustrated.

And the phenomenally successful streaming video service Hulu, home to The Daily Show and 30 Rock, greets me with the joyful news that "currently our video library can only be streamed from within the United States".

Bill Thompson
I am not an IP address, I am a free man - and a potential customer
Bill Thompson

I'm being blocked because my IP address, the unique identifier for my computer on the internet, reveals that I'm a customer of Virgin Media and located in the United Kingdom and whatever deal AMC has made with the owners of The Prisoner only covers the US.

It would be easy to get around this, of course, either by altering the settings on my computer or using one of the third-party services that makes it look like I'm connecting from within the US.

And of course all episodes of The Prisoner are available to download from a variety of unlicensed sources, so all AMC's restrictions are doing is depriving me of the adverts they'd like to show along with the programmes.

Licence to block

This is not just a US phenomenon, and the BBC is one of the main offenders here in the UK, making every effort possible to ensure that TV and radio programmes are only available online to those actually in the country who qualify as "licence fee payers" and are therefore judged to be entitled to them.

Oddly enough you don't have to pay for a television licence to count, as the BBC's Charter is clear that its services should be provided to anyone in the UK who might benefit from them, so tourists are welcome.

And of course one side-effect is that people who have actually paid their TV licence can't watch iPlayer programmes when they are abroad for holiday or business. Perhaps the idea is that it balances out, so for every visitor from Indonesia watching Top Gear there's a frustrated advertising executive in Barcelona having to settle for Telemundo.

Regional restrictions are not limited to television programmes. Spotify is one of the more interesting online music services with a massive library of songs from a wide range of artists that can be streamed to your PC, offering a great alternative to music radio.

Patrick McGoohan (AP)
Patrick McGoohan fans in the US have it a little easier
You can listen for free, with occasional ads, or pay for an ad-free service, but even before its public launch - at the moment you can only sign up if you have an invitation code - Spotify has had to limit who can listen to some songs because the record labels it has done deals with do not have world-wide rights.

We are seeing the negative impact of deals made long before the internet created a global market of over a billion people who care little for the artificial boundaries between "North America" and "EMEA" created by the old generation of content providers.

We have to replace practices that come from a time when lines drawn on a map represented real boundaries between markets, and not limit innovation because the world has changed in ways that were not properly anticipated by rights holders.

After all, these restrictions are not the result of different laws or community standards, but commercial choices made by companies, and they can be remade if the commercial will is there.

When will the content companies realise that I am not an IP number, I am a free man - and a potential customer, no matter where I am in the world.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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