The Case of Canadian Cable Cutter and the Content Copyrights Catch-22

"I banish thee, foul cord! Trouble me no further!"
Hi, my name is Jesse, and I'm a cable-cutter.

You've likely heard the term before. If not, allow me to enlighten you: Cable-cutters (or Cord-cutters) are those of us who have chosen to forgo exorbitant monthly cable TV bills in preference of various internet-based streaming services and other sources of content. Our numbers are growing every year. Cable television, to us, is an anachronistic concept; one in which we pay for tons of content we never watch, and the content we do want is played piecemeal at scheduled times.

This is the era of streaming: we watch as much of whatever we want, whenever we want to.

If you're an American, this is a glorious time to be a cord-cutter. Earlier this year, Apple and HBO announced HBO Now, a subscription streaming service which allows access to the full archive of past and present HBO original shows, as well as new episodes of Game of Thrones as-they-air (which, let's face it, is what we're all interested in). Hulu lets you watch new episodes of shows from ABC, the CW, Fox, and NBC the day after they air, for free. CBS has CBS All Access, a subscription streaming service for new and archived shows. Like Netflix, both Amazon and Yahoo! have taken it upon themselves not only to launch subscription streaming services, but to also produce original shows. Yahoo! Screen being where cult-sitcom Community ended up after being given the boot by NBC. Amazon Prime Video is the producer of the much talked about series Transparent.

If you're Canadian, like me, you don't have access to any of that stuff. The reasons are complicated.

Individual shows are likely subject to distribution agreements with various rights-holders depending on the region (ie: country) and medium (eg: broadcast TV, DVD, streaming) in question, but it's difficult to know for sure, since such dealings are not subject to public scrutiny (an article by the Toronto Star contains some mention of this).

As for streaming services themselves, there's also the matter of the CRTC (that would be the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for those American readers who were wondering). In the past, the regulator enforced strict Canadian content regulations (or "CanCon") on broadcast TV - up to 50% during prime time. For a time, streaming services existed in a legally-ambiguous territory; not quite video stores and not quite broadcasters. Bringing a streaming service to Canada meant running the risk of having to comply with CanCon rules in the future. It was only this past spring, after some litigious wrestling with Netflix and YouTube, that the CRTC announced it was relaxing the CanCon requirements for streaming and TV. Unfortunately, ominous mentions that the regulator might revisit the issue at a future date do little to alleviate any private-sector jitters about expanding a service into a new country.

More infuriating is the case of HBO Now, a service we will certainly never see in Canada. Contrary to what you might have assumed, HBO Canada is not a wholly-owned subsidiary of HBO, but rather of Bell Media and Chorus Entertainment (the latter being majority owned by the Shaw family). Obviously, two of Canada's big cable providers would never support a move which allowed Canadians to watch some of TV's most popular shows without a cable subscription. Bell does offer Game of Thrones via their streaming service CraveTV, but CraveTV is only available to Bell's cable subscribers - Thus, from the cable-cutter's perspective, defeating the whole point.

For several years, downloading episodes of Game of Thrones via Bittorrent was the medium of choice for many Canadians who weren't interested in paying the monthly fee of a costly premium cable package. This year, however, that solution became riskier. New laws came into effect which instituted a "Notice and Notice" copyright protection system for Canada. In effect, media companies hire enforcement firms to prevent their content from being pirated online. The enforcement firms log any IP addresses seen sharing content online, then send a legal notice to the ISP (internet service provider) who owns that IP address. Under the new laws, the ISP is then legally obligated to forward the notice to the customer who is using the IP address. The notice may just be a warning, or it may also be an outrageous demand for a legal settlement. Either way, if the end customer continues their infringement, the enforcement firm could subpoena the customer's personal information from the ISP, and might even sue them in court.

It's easy to predict the outcomes of this situation because similar rules have been enacted in other countries. In the United States, the result has been extremely aggressive legal action by the media companies against ordinary citizens, for the most minor file-sharing infractions.

Personally, as a working adult, I generally try to pay for the media which I consume. As a former music student, I fully believe that artists should be reembursed for their work. Even if the work is really produced by monolithic media companies, giving them our money for particular products lets them know what kinds of films, music, and TV shows we like to consume, and thus what kinds they should make more of.

Some Canadians have managed so sneak under the radar by using VPN services to re-route and anonymize their internet traffic. This has the added benefit of allowing them to access streaming services that are usually region-blocked (such as the American version of Netflix, Yahoo! Screen, Hulu, and HBO Now). However, streaming providers have started cracking down, blocking VPN servers, likely under pressure from certain rights holders.

So, let's summarize: as it stands, American companies produce several TV programs which I want to watch, which are either impossible for me to buy, or require a premium cable subscription. If I try to obtain those shows through file sharing, I am risking legal action. In succinct terms, it's a catch-22: content producers have great shows which they won't sell to me, but if I try to download the shows, they might sue me.

... Hmpf. :/

It's an infuriating status quo, and extremely anti-consumer. The CRTC is trying to protect Canadian culture. The American content producers are trying to protect themselves from undue regulatory exposure. Greedy Canadian cable companies and rights-holders are trying to protect their bottom line. The question is, who is protecting Canadian consumers who just want to watch a few TV shows?

Sadly, there's no satisfactory answer at the moment. To round things out with a more positive tone, I thought I'd produce a guide to help you legally watch as much as possible without a cable subscription. Happy streaming!

iTunes - I'm an Apple booster, so I love iTunes. There's a huge selection of movies, TV, and music. For shows that have "Season Pass" you'll be able to watch new episodes shortly after they air on broadcast TV. The quality is fantastic, but the price is equivalent to buying TV seasons on BluRay/DVD. So chances are you'll want to use iTunes only when your desired show isn't available (or timely) anywhere else.

Netflix - The one distinctly American streaming service that we have in Canada, Netflix is a steal at $8 a month. On the downside, we have substantially less content than our American neighbours. On the upside, we still get all the fantastic Netflix Original shows like Orange is the New BlackHouse of CardsSense8, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Shomi - I imagine this service originally having been called "MiTu", since it's basically a clone of Netflix created by cable providers Shaw and Rogers. Slightly more than Netflix at $9 per month, Shomi offers a library of content that competes well with Netflix, and occasionally improves on it (Shomi carries the HD remastered version of Star Trek: The Next Generation, while Netflix's copy is clearly ripped from the DVDs). If you like Netflix but want to pad out the amount of content you can access, Shomi is worth it.

Over-the-Air HDTV - Oh, the cordcutter option that never gets enough love. Years ago, I made a one-time investment by buying a $60 mid-range HDTV antenna. For urban Canadians, HDTV is a great way to get free, high-definition content. In Vancouver, I get seven stations: CBC, Radio-Canada (French CBC), CTV, CTV2, OMNI, Global, and CityTV (reputedly, with a good rooftop antenna, one can get several stations from Washington state as well). The local stations are great for news, sports, and the occasional new episode of a sitcom.

Sports? Sports! - I don't watch a lot of sports, but if I'm feeling inclined to watch a game, I can usually find a way. As I mentioned, broadcast HDTV has plenty. For more hockey, there's Rogers' NHL GameCenter (though a full season pass may cause you a bit of sticker shock). FIFA world cup games I've always been able to find for free online. Sport... eh uh.... finds a way.

Other Free Streaming Sources: You can find lots of quality content on YouTube, not just highlights from Stephen Colbert or John Oliver, but also original content. Some of Canada's specialty cable range will also let you watch ad-supported shows online for free. The Daily Show is up on Comedy's website. Much TV's site will give you recent episodes of South Park, Drunk History, and Conan if you're so inclined. I can't make an exhaustive listing, but if you browse the Canadian websites of other specialty channels, I'm sure you'll find other options.

P.S. - If anyone has any additional (legal) suggestions for good content providers that are available to ALL Canadians (Bell's CraveTV need not apply... yet) please feel free to let me know, and I'll add them.

P.P.S. - Rogers and Shaw signed a deal with Amazon earlier this year to bring select Amazon Prime original shows to Shomi. However, if you want to watch Amazon's adaptation of Philip K Dyck's The Man in the High Castle, you're out of luck. It also remains to be seen whether new episodes of Amazon's shows will premiere on Shomi in a timely manner.