Voddler's Disruptive Approach to Rights

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At yesterday's Cloud TV Summit—the opening "focus day" of the CDN World Summit—the final session of the day particularly caught my attention. Marla Shapiro presented Voddler's platform. Having started out with a Netflix-esque VOD service several years ago their technology platform essentially delivered a native app that, much like Octoshape or Kontiki (and others) have delivered before, provided a peer-delivery service inside a "walled garden"—thereby offering a degree of rights control that perhaps torrent models do not.

With claims of some 28 patents, and "universal Hollywood studio approval" it was interesting to see a new, aggressive play in this space: A space that sometimes seems to have made few friends in its previous incarnations. In the same way that my.mp3.com failed in the face of a storm of fire from the RIAA at the peak of the dot-com boom, but iTunes Match most certainly has not failed despite being essentially the same model, I feel it is always important to remain open minded to "rehashing" of similar technology models but with better-packaged commercial propositions.

For that reason the Voddler model was interesting: they would probably (like all P2P services) distance themselves from the P2P moniker, but (call me stubborn) from a technical point of view that is essentially exactly what they are. At the heart of their proposition is a software client that provides caching at end user nodes, and utilises the end users' available disc and spare bandwidth to then provide a streaming service that is accessible to "nearby" (in network topology terms) clients who want the content cached on their peer. So not much new from a technical standpoint.

One component of their model was new, however, and if they make it work could be highly disruptive.

As well as offering access to a library of premium/subscription content through their portal and delivered via this distribution model, they also allow their clients to create a form of local digital locker —which they call Voddler LiveShelf—into which they can upload their own videos. This can include ripped DVD movies and even (to quote Shapiro) "iTunes downloaded movies," and then the customer can provide access to this digital locker to up to 10 of their friends through a secondary service called ViewShare. Both the customer and all the friends subscribe to this locker in a storage per-month model comparable to Dropbox or similar online storage services.

Now those of you who have followed this sector for a while will probably be raising a few eyebrows at this point. Certainly, if you are anything like me, this proposition sets my mind buzzing with questions—almost all of which are focused not on the technology but on the rights issues.

Let me clarify the workflow: Imagine you are my "friend" in this network and each of us pay $10 per month for a few GB of storage. I buy a movie from iTunes and download it. I then upload this video into my Voddler LiveShelf (which as far as iIcan see means I transfer it onto a reserved section of my own hard drive, but it is then "replicated" out onto Voddler's own storage services (which in turn are incidentally hosted on Amazon Web Services' storage network and CDN)

In turn you then receive notification that I have made this film available in my ViewShare network of up to 10 friends and you can then begin to download or stream that movie from any peers who have parts (or the whole item) of the video.

From a technical point of view it looks like a cheap P2P distribution model that will most likely be familiar.

However from a rights point of view this starts to look extremely disruptive. You see thier network is not territory limited.

If you are a German client and I am in the UK, and iTunes UK has a licensing deal for the film, but no such content deal has been done in Germany (as is so often the case with release windows) this system pays no heed. You, as the German resident are suddenly able to freely access content that is not available in your territory.

The Voddler argument is that I could freely use Dropbox to do exactly the same, and there would be no centralised revenue—recall each user of ViewShare has to subscribe, and does so based on the size of the LiveShelf locker's storage—and so in much the same way as iTunes Match, they argue, there is a revenue generated which was not before, and this revenue is a new and incremental revenue for the content providers.

I hasten to point out that iTunes Match is not designed for sharing between users, but rather purely among a single user's multiple devices.

Voddler takes a more (what i would call) "Scandinavian" view on rights: Namely the rights are bought and paid for by the customer and thus are transferred to the customer for them to then do with as they wish. If this includes sharing the content with their friends it is, they argue, exactly the same as lending your friend a DVD. After all most mainstream content published in the U.S. on TV is available within an hour in Scandinavian networks, and within 12 hours most of it has (volunteer generated) subtitles—often many months before such content is made available legally.

Voddler argues that since the content is being distributed in such a way anyway, why not make some money out of this process?

To be honest, this strategy is audacious if nothing else. The marketing gave the impression that the studios are "on board" with this—though I think they are "on board" with the DRM that is applied to the legal Netflix-esque aspect of the service—I simply cannot believe that the studios are finewith the ViewShare model.

I asked the question "If a studio finds content shared in a way that they do not approve of, does Voddler respect take-down requests or do they retreat into nuanced Scandinavian law, which is typically and famously in favor of what most other territories call piracy?"

The answer was "everything is in development."

To be honest that makes this VERY exciting, disruptive, and potentially game-changing in certain models.

I will be surprised if they really achieve scale globally before they end up in a mountain of Pirate Bay or MegaUpload-type litigation, and they certainly won't be the first provider from Scandinavia who are perceived by content producers to flout traditional copyright laws. I am not sure what they drink in that part of the world, but it certainly gives them an atypical perspective, perhaps one that is consumer-friendly in terms of providing cheaper and cheaper content services, but arguably one that it will take a long time for rights holders to agree on.

However, it may be that the dialog they have opened with the rights holders in creating their unprecedented legal movie service provides a critical differentiator and allows them to achieve the seemingly impossible.

From my point of view as an industry observer and commentator it is great to see the gloves come off and something disruptive brewing.

And that is a story worth sharing….

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