Sunday, 5 May 2013

TV Programmes: The Future?

Last week I wrote about my predictions for the future of books and e-readers. This week I’m going to write copyright terms for TV programmes, and how we might consume them in the future, particularly when these terms expire.

Once again, I’ll be talking about copyright law, but I’m not a legal expert, so what I write will be correct to the best of my knowledge. If you happen to know that I’m wrong about any aspect of this, then please do correct me in the comments.

In previous posts on this blog I’ve talked about classic books that fall out of copyright and into the public domain, which happens 70 years after the death of the author under UK law (last week I had said that it was 75 years after the death of the author, but I believe that it is actually just 70 years). The general principle behind copyright laws is that the originator of the work should have control over the work, and be able to make a profit from it, for a reasonable period of time, after which the work should fall into the public domain so as to be freely accessible to all. One interesting fact about copyright laws is that this principle doesn’t just apply to written works. There is a similar law covering TV broadcasts.

The period of copyright for TV broadcasts is 50 years from the end of the year that the programme is first broadcast. So, if a programme was first broadcast at any time during the year 2000, copyright on the broadcast will expire on 1st January 2051.

This leads to a very intriguing prospect – although be careful not to get your hopes up. As many of you will be aware, a very popular TV programme is due to celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year.

On 23rd November 1963 the very first episode of “Doctor Who” was broadcast. In total, six episodes were broadcast in 1963, which comprise the first serial, which was four episodes long, and the first two episodes of the second serial, which featured the Daleks. Therefore, the broadcasts of these six episodes would fall out of copyright on 1st January 2014.

Does this mean that we can start downloading copies of these episodes, freely and legally, from next year? Don’t get too excited, as I believe the answer to this is possibly not. I believe the law refers simply to the programmes as broadcast, and not necessarily the programmes themselves.

There is a similar copyright law which relates to films, where the definition of “films” includes any moving image, which in turn includes DVDs of TV programmes. The term of copyright for films lasts for 70 years after the death of all of the people involved in making the film. Almost every surviving episode of “Doctor Who” has now been released on DVD, and so I believe is now subject to this part of copyright law. As there are people involved in making the early episodes of “Doctor Who” still very much alive and well, it’s doubtful that we’ll see episodes of “Doctor Who” come fully out of copyright in our lifetime.

As I’ve said, I’m not an expert on these matters, and so if I have any of this wrong then please let me know!

However, what is certain is that copyright doesn’t last forever, and, one day, “Doctor Who”, and, in fact, all TV programmes, will come out of copyright. By the mid-22nd century there should be a lot of material that is out of copyright. What that will mean is that, as with out-of-copyright books, these out-of-copyright TV programmes could be freely and legally distributed.

By this point in time, most, if not all, TVs will be connected to the internet. People will be able to access vast libraries of out-of-copyright TV programmes, as well as many in-copyright and current programmes. People will be able to download such programmes onto portable devices to watch on the train or at work during their lunch break, etc. Some of this is already starting to happen – Sky offer a download service for some of their current programmes, and Channel 4 has a lot of archive material available to stream on its 4oD service.

With such a vast quantity of material available by the mid-22nd century, I believe that broadcast TV will become less important, as people will probably prefer to watch programmes (whether current programmes, or an out-of-copyright programme that they’re interested in) at a time that suits them, rather than at a set transmission time. Popular programmes will still have a home as broadcast programmes – people will still be tuning in on a Saturday evening to the latest episodes of “Doctor Who” I’m sure!

Unlike books, I believe that people will most likely prefer either streamed or downloaded programmes. Owning programmes on DVD, Blu-Ray, or any future optical and/or physical medium will decline in popularity, in the same way that owning music on CDs is already declining in popularity today. There won’t be vast libraries of films and TV shows on a shelf for people to browse – these will be replaced by a list on a screen.

But there will be a vast amount of choice, and it will be impossible to watch every single programme that one might enjoy watching – they’ll just be too many of them! People will never be short of something to watch.

So, yes, both in terms of books and TV shows, the 22nd century onwards is looking like it will be a good time to live in.

This week I’ve looked at copyright terms in TV programmes, and how we might consume them in the future. But there’s one other aspect regarding TV programme distribution that I’d like to look at, and it’s something that affects us now, rather than in 200 years time. It’s something that I refer to as the fragmentation of audiences, and that will be the focus of my blog post next week...

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