So DivX Corporation’s Stage6 has croaked. The service’s ‘goodbye, cruel word’ note says it was a victim of its own success, but that it proved ‘it’s possible to distribute true high definition video on the Internet’. What it really showed is how deliriously inefficient streaming video is, whether it’s high def or otherwise.
It cost at least $1m a month to run Stage6 with its 17.4 million unique users a month, whereas (at an informed guess) The Pirate Bay costs about $50,000 a month all-in for its 92.5 million. That’s $57,000 per million users for Stage6; $540 per million for The Pirate Bay (not including people using its tracker without visiting the site, which adds a lot of Mininova’s traffic as well, not to mention the other big indexes.) So at the very least, The Pirate Bay is a hundred and five times more efficient than Stage6 was.
But inefficiency is not the only reason the service is no more, while the vilified Pirate Bay, Mininova et al. are still with us. Stage6 was also a lot more illegal than a BitTorrent tracker — whether it pretended to be complying with the DMCA or not. Surprisingly under reported after the abrupt demise of the service was the 6th Feb US court ruling against DivX’s attempt to establish its protection under the DMCA’s safe harbour provisions ahead of a legal battle with Universal Music Group. My reading of the company’s consequent, speedy exit from the stage (and correct me if you think I’m wrong) is that Stage6 didn’t have the cash or confidence to test its luck any further. (How much this affects DivX as a whole remains to be seen. But only six days after the court decision, Jerome Vashisht Rota, the inventor of DivX and a major shareholder in DivX corporation, was openly dumping stock.)
It’s not hard to read the tea leaves. While GooTube (famously being sued by Viacom on pretty much the same grounds) probably won’t lose sleep, smaller players eating their lunches off of pirate content will be paying very close attention. VCs burning money on pushing streaming media to the masses will at least want to imagine some returns on their investment rather than the further expense of executives in the dock.
So why is the exit of Stage6 a step in the right direction? Because for all the hyperbole in the mainstream (and sometimes online) media about the YouTube or Google Video or Stage6 ‘revolution‘, the relationship to media they offer us is far too traditional. Come to this place. Be served your media (and suck down your advertising along with it). Go away again. Yes, we can upload material, but I’m not the only one who feels that this wasn’t the primary function of Stage6, even if it did distribute about 50,000 copies of STEAL THIS FILM II before its demise. No need to share, no need to understand the technology, no need to think. It’s what they called ‘lean back’ media: millions of people slouching thoughtlessly in front of an marketing-emitting portal.
The promise of P2P is a thorough breakdown of the kind of power that congeals in a portal like Stage6. A user-owned, user-operated infrastructure that doesn’t require massive investment, doesn’t by default allow oligarchs to make more money from us. A disruptive, mutable infrastructure that brings media to us in the context we choose, forcing a massive re-think about what, why and how we create — as individuals, as businesses, as a society.
It is lazy for us to rely at all on portals like Stage6, but worse than lazy, it’s dangerous. It suggests we don’t value the potential autonomy P2P offers us. Our old media masters profited from control of content: are we really so happy to swap them for new ones who profit from control of our eyeballs? However lazy we are, I think that most of us are able to see that that this isn’t a model that we want to encourage. The demise of Stage6 and the portals that will follow gives us cause to think about strengthening our infrastructures: and that can’t be a bad thing.