Africa’s TV and film piracy – Is there a way to bring some of Africa’s pirates in from the cold? (Discop Abidjan)

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The existence of piracy in the broadcast sector has been a constant ever since Balancing Act was set up in 2000. It led to us producing a piracy study for one of the major African broadcast players several years ago. This year DISCOP Abidjan is running a session on how the pirates might come in from the cold. Russell Southwood and Sylvain Beletre look at how this might happen and the challenges of the new digital piracy.

Until a recent conversation, if you’d asked us about the new wave of African VoD platforms and piracy, we would have said that the new platforms were an attractive alternative to paid-for pirated content. You don’t have to leave your home and when you order something the quality of picture and sound will be alright and you’ll get what you ordered.

But partly because the mobile operators have been so slow to provide adequate bandwidth for downloading and streaming, VoD platforms have had a tough time taking off. In the meantime, the content pirates have been making a digital transition all of their own.

With the old physical model of piracy, producing DVD copies both cost money and time and the quality was usually terrible. With the collapse of many African currencies, the price of DVDs has gone up. If you copy digitally, the cost is as near to zero as makes no difference.

So the bigger pirate content seller bit torrents the content and sells it to the street distributors. The street distributors stand on the street with a simple hand sign offering content. In Nigeria, the buyer pays N30 (GBP 0.1 / Euro 0.13 / USD 0,15 / FCFA 87) for a film and less for a music video. The buyer will then share it with his or her friends, usually at no cost. As someone who watches the pirates told me:”This market is killing itself. Once you’ve bought the content, you can give it away for free.”

If you take somewhere like Nigeria, the biggest threat is probably to its slightly archaic physical distribution channel, the market at Alaba. Here distributors go to buy legal, semi-legal and pirated DVDs. It now makes little sense to go to all the effort and trouble with physical DVDs.

But the next part of the change is the real kicker. Every tech savvy African who consumes content will start using Zender or Flash Share on their Android smartphones. The app allows you to create a WiFi hotspot and transfer a 200 MB movie file in 5 seconds:”Everything else will be a drop in the ocean in 5 years time. You don’t need data. The next 500 million will spend less on content and come from the lower income brackets. Consumer adoption (of digital video on mobile) will be piracy. If you look at China, there’s no successful VoD platform where people pay.”

This is piracy at the consumer end but the session at the forthcoming DISCOP Abidjan (31 May-2 June, Sofitel Hotel) looks at how Pay TV companies that pirate content might be encouraged to leave piracy behind and become legitimate commercial companies.  Organised by Séverine Laurent, Director of Afrikakom, the session will look at how the battle for the recognition of IP might make some progress.

The main purpose of the session is to see whether it’s possible to get to a position where some of those who are pirating content can operate like companies elsewhere on the continent that have a clear corporate structure and see their mission as making a return for their shareholders.

The key questions being asked at the session are as follows:

• Can we move from informal to a more formal and structured market that respects the IP rights of sellers?

• Is it possible for the African Pay TV platforms that currently are pirating content to become legal actors?

• What policies can be put in place to create a framework that respects IP? What are the best strategies and tactics to reduce piracy? (Communicating to the public, to the pirates, negotiations, low cost strategies ...)

• Is it possible to get across the argument that the respect for IP will help foster
a stronger African audiovisual sector, capable of financing of local production and employing more Africans?

The one thing that piracy can do in a positive sense is show that there is a market at prices below the legitimate rate and that there are effective pirate distribution mechanisms. But if the TV and film industries are to begin winning the argument about IP, they needs to do so quickly before new and easier forms of digital piracy become entrenched.

By Russell Southwood and Sylvain Béletre for Balancing Act, May 2016.

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