The practice of windowing—staggering releases of some media work in different places or formats—has been common practice for the movie and television industry for some time. It used to be mainly a feature of staggering film releases from one part of the world to another, then from theater to video once video became an established format. Lately, it is being used to hold movies back from Netflix and Redbox after their release on home video.

An example of windowing prompted The Oatmeal comic about someone seeking to buy the first season of A Game of Thrones that subsequently spawned accusations of entitlement. It has also been tried in the book publishing industry, with less than salutary results (though that doesn’t keep people from still proposing it).

We’ve previously mentioned contentions that windowing is a bad policy in that it prevents people who would be willing to pay for something in their preferred format now from doing so, and will drive at least some of them to go out and download it illicitly. It seems these points of view are becoming increasingly common.

Here’s a Techdirt story by Mike Masnick looking at an EU public consultation on copyright-related issues, one of which was the question of whether movie release windows made sense anymore. Masnick points to several consumer group filings suggesting windows should be shortened or abolished and that they’re holding back “more innovative technologies and business models.” On the other hand, the MPAA insisted that release windows are “a fundamental feature of the film industry’s business model.”

Masnick uses this to call attention to how ready the MPAA was to mess with “fundamental features” of the Internet by backing SOPA and PIPA, which is a good point, but I find the argument over windowing itself to be the most interesting part.

But then windowing in the music industry comes up on Fast Company, in an interview with Spotify chief content officer Ken Parks. It turns out that a few music acts, such as Coldplay, the Black Keys, and Adele, are withholding their music from Spotify and Rhapsody for a period of time from the belief that their albums will sell more if they can’t be streamed.

Parks writes of this belief:

Certainly it’s not supported at all by data and facts. There’s no data to suggest that it does [negatively affect] sales. To the contrary, our indicators point out that if you want to increase sales, you ought to be increasing access to your music. People want to listen to music–they don’t want a 30-second sample. It’s kind of wrongheaded to think you’re creating scarcity by withholding [music from Spotify]. When you withhold a record on Spotify, it is available on torrent sites, on Grooveshark, as well as on YouTube likely. You’re not creating any kind of scarcity. The very same bands who are withholding from streaming services are often available for free to users on YouTube, which doesn’t monetize nearly as well as Spotify. If you think that promoting your record via streaming is a good thing for sales on YouTube, there is no reason as all to withhold it on Spotify. So it’s kind of a head-scratcher–there is a bit of schizophrenia, I think, in the camp that wants to withhold their stuff. It’s ridiculous to think that an 18-year-old kid who is denied access to listening on Spotify is going to run to iTunes and buy it. That’s not the way it works. They’re going to go to the torrent sites.

Though he is quick to add that he’s not “demonizing people who have a different point of view”—it’s just that it’s hard for them to wrap their heads around the new digital business model, and points to the furor around unbundling individual tracks fomented by iTunes in 2003. He also notes that in this case, it’s actually not the publishers (the record labels) doing the withholding, because they have the incentive to make all the money they can.

Later in the interview, he points to one unnamed millions-selling band who uses Spotify to track how popular its new music is, because its members know if the music is popular on Spotify, it is going to sell well commercially too. Parks thinks that windowing in music acts will dwindle as acts realize it is counterproductive.

Will the content industry ever defenestrate the practice of windowing? We have seen windows start to grow shorter. In some cases, such as the most recent season of Doctor Who, they were eliminated entirely—the new Doctor Who went from taking months to get to North America to airing episodes on the same day in both the UK and the US (for part of the season, until a US holiday caused a 1-week delay).

Geographic windowing made sense in a world more affected by scarcity of physical goods and slowness of communication, when it was only possible to concentrate limited resources on marketing in one area at a time. But in the digital world, when anyone anywhere could theoretically buy anything at any time, limiting availability increases incentive to pirate, and leaves the money those people would have paid on the table.

And release format windowing benefits movie theater chains by giving people incentive to go out and pay for overpriced concession food—but it also means that studios have to invest in two separate marketing campaigns for each movie, and also loses sales from people who would have bought a disc when they first heard about the movie but lose interest by the time it gets out of the theater.

Availability is a great way to fight piracy. As I mentioned before, iTunes and Amazon MP3 have significantly cut music piracy. Netflix streaming and Hulu have probably also affected movie and TV piracy, though not by anywhere near as much, given that you still can’t buy movies DRM-free yet to own. Wouldn’t it be great if you could?


  1. I really wonder if the publishing companies ever consider the end to end view.

    You wrap up ebooks in DRM so that consumers are trained to only buy ebooks when they are ready to read them. (After all it’s only a rental and you didn’t really buy it so you’re going to lose access to it if you decide to move to another vendor’s device.) You better not buy it and leave it sitting in a TBR pile for a couple of months/years or chances are you won’t be able to read it.

    Now you window the products with geo restrictions and high prices so customers are supposed to keep coming back to find out if A) They can buy it yet and B) does the price match what they are willing to spend.

    Now all you have to do is capture the consumers attention in the 5 minutes they’re looking for a new book to read and match the price point they’re willing to pay. Oh and if they don’t follow these rules call them names.

  2. I am sure that the decision makers at the highest levels of the major publishing companies are very smart and capable individuals.

    I am also sure that they have carefully considered and analysed the relative costs and benefits of “windowing” and of DRM, and of geographic restrictions, and of all of the other things that they are currently doing.

    I am also sure that they have read any number of blog posts that advocate doing away with these restrictions and adopting a more open strategy of setting a price for ebooks and of selling their ebooks at that price, world-wide, DRM free, and as soon as possible.

    The publishing executives, however, have declined to adopt this open strategy.

    I just wish that these decision makers would explain their “logic” and would explain what they hope to acomplish with DRM (that can be cracked and removed) and with windowing and geographic restrictions that drive consumers to pirate their books.

    I do not expect, however, to see any such discussion or explanation of publishing industry polices.

  3. @Gary

    It’s not that hard to see the real logic, most of the time. Just remember it’s about the appeasing the competition, not fighting the technology.

    DRM, for example, is really applied by the big distributors (Apple, Amazon, BN, Google), not the publishers. It’s meant to lock consumers into a certain platform and turn otherwise rational consumers into brand obsessed fanboys- and it works very well for them. I don’t believe for a second that the publisher’s are the ones pushing it in close-door meetings.

    The publisher’s DO force DRM on smaller ebookstores- but I imagine that is simply because they don’t want to upset the big four. Books sold DRM-free on Baen, for example, usually aren’t available in the official Kindle/Nook market, even if the author would consent to DRM on that version. This works fine for Baen, but a larger publishing house might not be able to afford that sort of snub.

    In the Spotify example above, the “windowing” probably has less to do with protecting itunes sales and more to do with the fact that companies like Sirius, clear channel, maybe even Pandora etc. can and will pay MUCH more for the broadcast rights to the same content than a start-up like Spotify. If you give Spotify the content for what they can afford to pay, then Sirius is going to come back and demand the same discount. So, you either tell Spotify they can’t have the content, ever, or you sell them older content at a discount and hope that will keep Sirius happy. Thus, windowing.

    The same thing happens in video with cable companies. Movie studios have nothing against Netflix or Redbox, but Comcast, HBO, and Starz can simply outbid them.

    If Sirius wants to start a Spotify type service, there won’t be windowing.

  4. Peter wrote:
    “DRM, for example, is really applied by the big distributors (Apple, Amazon, BN, Google), not the publishers.”

    This is not true. Amazon apply the technology but only at the insistence of the Publishers.

    However it is true that in insisting on DRM, the publishers have handed Amazon a huge advantage in locking these titles to Amazon’s Kindle.

  5. @Howard

    I didn’t single out Amazon.

    Based on what Cory Doctorow has reported, and the T and C from the various self-publishing services. Apple and Sony are the current heavies when it comes to demanding DRM on ebooks. But the thing about DRM is, you either need to apply it everywhere or not at all. A combination doesn’t make sense.

    Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Google have all been known to permit DRM-free books. But I’m not assuming any of them are truly blameless because they ARE the ultimate beneficiaries. We don’t know what they have told publishers in closed-door negotiations, or whether they would be as open to distributing DRM-free files if they didn’t have Apple to blame the fart on.

  6. Peter – fair points. However I could only comment on Amazon who do not demand DRM. That they benefit is hardly something to “blame” them for. That is just silly imho. That they benefit is something where, if anyone should be criticised it is the publishers ! And the truth is that it is the publishers who are nearly always at fault in these matters.

    I am no apologist for any party. I just believe that people should look to the facts and not jump to conclusions and place blame where it is not deserved. Amazon are no saints, but I find far more evil deeds among the publishers and Music and Film industry.

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