Netflix is in terrible danger. In fact, these might be its last days.
Oh, not today’s Netflix. The Netflix you’re using today is fine. It made it—got to do something daring and edgy, prove out its model, and become part of the establishment.
But the next Netflix—the company so cool it makes Netflix look like Blockbuster Video—that Netflix is practically dead in the water.
Imagine you wanted to start a business where you bought copies of movies, fair and square, and then sold the right to people to watch them from their homes, painlessly sending them right to their doors.
Every copy you bought might be viewed by hundreds of people and you could charge each one of them for the right to look at the movies you transmitted to their homes, and you wouldn’t have to give anything back—after all, you bought the movie, you own it, and you can do what you want with it.
Sounds crazy? Illegal?
It’s Netflix, from its founding in 1997, the company mailed DVDs around America and then the world, right up to 2007, when it switched to streaming. Right from the start, major movie studios hated Netflix (and its competitors, like Redbox).
They even tried to get their retailers to refuse to sell discs to Netflix (though indies and documentary makers loved having a powerhouse who’d put their wares on equal footing with products from the big five studios).
Netflix plowed on, and on the way, became the studios’ best friend, and now it’s a studio in its own right, making some of the most innovative programming on any of our screens.
It’s a path no company will be able to take again, unless something changes.
That’s because the World Wide Web Consortium—the organization that’s made the Web’s most important, open standards—is working on a standard for digital locks that new businesses can’t legally remove, even to do something legal.
The next Netflix-like business will run right up against those W3C-defined locks, and be stymied.
Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a law from the last millennium, endangers anyone who tampers with or removes digital locks, even for legal reasons.
Sometimes, you can’t even remove the digital locks that restrict access to your own data without risking legal reprisals.
In the past, the W3C has made its members agree to license their patents to anyone who was making a new Web technology. More than any other standards body, it was committed to making its recommendations unencumbered by the need to get permission to improve the Web.
For the first time in its history, the W3C is adding encumbrances to the Web, rather than removing them.
We think that’s wrong. We think the W3C had the right idea before: when corporations gather under its roof to make standards, they should have to pledge not to use the law to stop legal, legitimate, innovative Web technology.
We’ve asked the W3C to adopt a new pledge, modeled on its patent policy, requiring companies to promise not to use the DMCA and its international equivalents (enacted all around the world thanks to the US Trade Representative’s lobbying) against organizations, individuals, and companies that remove its locks to do lawful things.
The W3C has done it before. With your help, we’ll convince them to do it again. Please share this with your friends. The W3C makes the Web for all of us, the users and the businesses alike, and the group is very interested in the public’s ideas about what the Web can and should be.
By Cory Doctorow.