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?