netflix or piracy

I had to cancel my Netflix subscription while I was in the Army, but otherwise I have been a loyal and happy Netflix customer for years. I’ve loved the service, and recommended it to everyone I knew who loved movies. Netflix was one of those few companies that always seemed to do good and, when they made a mistake, to acknowledge it and make it right.

Recently, Netflix decided to upgrade their Watch Instantly feature. They replaced their old system with a new one based on Microsoft’s Silverlight browser plug-in. The good news is that this enables customers to watch movies in browsers other than Internet Explorer, including on Mac OS. The bad news is that it doesn’t really work.

I have never had any trouble watching video on my computer. I can watch streaming movies and television shows in high-definition at Hulu, YouTube, ABC.com, and other video sites. (That used to include Netflix as well.) I can watch video downloaded from iTunes.

Yet when I try to watch movies at Netflix now, I get an error: “Individualization error. Cannot play back protected (DRM) content,” with the error code 8156. This happens with every movie I try, in both Firefox and Internet Explorer (both of which are fully up-to-date).

This problem is not that uncommon, as far as I have been able to determine. A Google search turns up numerous references to this particular error, but always without any solution. Netflix customer support is no help; although the CSR did try a number of things, he eventually referred me to Microsoft. I am currently in the early stages of that process now, though I have already been informed that they will probably just refer me back to Netflix – the vicious circle.

And over and over on the web, you see the same complaint: that people have been loyal and happy Netflix customers for years, who have recommended the service to all their friends, and who have now had their experience ruined in a matter of days or weeks. Meanwhile, Netflix does not seem to care enough to address the problem seriously.

This is a failure on the part of Netflix: one, for failing to address this error in a fashion that shows a commitment to their customers, and two, for relying on an obscure piece of software from Microsoft, a company well-known for their half-assed approach to software development, but craven attention to detail when it comes to bending over for the movie and music industries.

This points to that perennial problem with Digital Rights Management. I pay for the Netflix service. I do not use P2P services or torrents. The only videos that I do not pay for are those ad-supported videos (at Hulu or ABC.com, for instance) that are offered for free. I have no software or hardware installed on my computer that could capture streaming video, protected or otherwise.

And I – and all those others – are the victims of DRM. We are actual customers who have paid for our products and services, and who cannot now use them because we are being caught in this DRM dragnet. Meanwhile, people who never pay for movies or television shows (or video games, for that matter) because they get them from BitTorrent or the Pirate Bay are completely unaffected. Anti-piracy measures never affect the real pirates; they only affect the people trying to be honest customers.

More and more, I feel like a sucker.

Why not just steal the content, if that is the only way that you can actually use it? Why not just steal it, when, after you pay for it, you are suddenly and without warrant branded a criminal by a poorly written piece of software? Here is a struggle for morality in the digital age: when morality results in getting, well, screwed, then the only option is immorality – or, maybe, it is time to reassess our definitions of morality. Maybe it is time to download, download, download, without sending a penny to the content providers who would otherwise take our money and run.

If these massive corporations, whose budgets compete with the gross national products of nation-states, want to treat those of us who would be customers as thieves, while doing nothing about the real thieves – other than suing single mothers for having a handful of songs in their shared folders – then why should we not all be thieves? For the last decade, the RIAA and MPAA have acted like criminal organizations, protection rackets shaking down the little guy – pay up, or else we’ll bust up the place – while using their lobbyists to convince uninformed or in-their-pocket legislators to pass clearly unconstitutional laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In England and New Zealand, content providers have strong-armed ISPs into dumping their customers on merely the accusation of “piracy”. These are not the actions of a legitimate business; these are the actions of a Digital Mafia.

In that context, are not the thieves the good guys?

Netflix, you don’t give refunds for partial months, but my subscription ends in just over a week. You’ve got that long to start treating me like a paying customer again, and not a thief. Otherwise, you will have one less customer, and BitTorrent may have one more user.