Is using Netflix in SA piracy?

Only a few months ago South Africans who wanted to stream TV entertainment over an Internet connection instead of using broadcast services such DStv did not have many options.

South Africa has seen an influx of video on demand (VOD) services since September 2014, with Vidi from Times Media Group beating the Altech Node to launch by just over a week.

Then, to end off the year, MTN launched its own video streaming service called FrontRow.

Though there were other ways to get video content digitally in South Africa before the launch of Vidi, there were no subscription VOD services – only transactional ones like iTunes Movies and DStv BoxOffice.

It’s no wonder then that tech-savvy South Africans found ways to use Netflix locally as the service grew in popularity overseas.

Regional licensing, geoblocks, and copyright

Controversially, it turns out that paying for and using a geoblocked VOD service like Netflix is considered copyright infringement (a.k.a “piracy”) in South Africa.

Answering the question “Is streaming content from Netflix in South Africa piracy?”, then, seems to be a simple “yes”.

However, “piracy” is a loaded term, and some feel that it should not be used to refer to all kinds of copyright infringement (or at all).

The definition of copyright infringement is also not absolute. Different countries have very different interpretations of what an act of unauthorised copying entails.

For example, it is still technically illegal to convert your CD collection to MP3s in South Africa. It may become legal one day, though.

The powers-that-be said they wouldn’t prosecute people who rip their CDs for personal use, but the bottom line is that it would be considered copyright infringement in a court.

In Australia, on the other hand, it is completely legal to use virtual private networks or other technologies to circumvent the geoblocking measures put in place by services such as Netflix.

The right question

The developments in Australia regarding Netflix make for interesting reading, especially considering that current estimates indicate around 200,000 Aussies already enjoy the US version of the streaming service.

Recent reports suggest that Netflix clamped down on VPN users, with some media suggesting the timing just ahead of its Australian launch was suspicious.

Adding to the suspicions is that when Netflix arrives in a new country it typically launches with a much smaller library than its US version.

Netflix has denied claims that it cracked down on VPN users, saying its policies have remained the same.

It did confirm, however, that it blocks known VPNs in accordance with content contracts.

“Foxtel, for example, owns House of Cards in Australia so they kind of like us to block them. But we are not changing our policy. It remains the same as it ever was,” Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt was quoted as saying to Cnet.

It will be interesting to watch the launch of Netflix Australia, and whether Netflix will succeed in persuading people to switch from its US service to the local one.

Looking at Australia also raises a far more interesting question than whether circumventing geoblocks is illegal or not: Should bypassing geoblocks be considered piracy?

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Is using Netflix in SA piracy?