Geo-Blocking Caused Massive TV Piracy 20 Years Ago

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This week several Hollywood studios and pay TV giant Sky found themselves on the wrong end of an EU antitrust investigation for blocking cross-border access to TV shows and movies. Yet twenty years ago Sky was doing the same thing, a stubbornness that sparked a huge wave of piracy right across Europe.

tvDue to complex licensing agreements between content creators and distributors, movies and TV shows are often locked down to a specific region. A prime example is the U.S. edition of Netflix which offers a better selection than versions available elsewhere.

It’s a frustrating situation for consumers who are forced to jump through hoops to access the content they want to buy. The problem is amplified in Europe, where citizens of member states – sometimes located just a few miles apart – are regularly denied access to cross-border digital content.

This week, however, the European Commission sent a strong signal to the world’s largest movie studios and a powerful broadcaster that geo-restriction won’t be tolerated. Sky UK, Disney, NBC Universal, Paramount Pictures, Sony, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros. were all put on notice with the launch of an EU antitrust investigation into the practice.

When one considers the history it’s difficult to feel sympathy for these companies. Just as geo-locking, blocking and local release windows fuel piracy today, licensing and geo-restriction fueled massive movie and TV show piracy two decades ago.

Dr Markus Kuhn currently works as a senior lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Cambridge. He made the headlines in 2010 when he was asked to analyze a controversial ‘bomb detector’ deployed in Iraq and concluded it could detect nothing. Twenty years ago, however, his skills were being deployed against content providers who simply refused to make their content widely available.

As a German citizen keen to view English language sci-fi content undubbed, Kuhn approached UK-based Sky TV in the early 1990s and offered to buy an official viewing smartcard from the company. Due to licensing conditions and their geo-blocking policy, Sky refused to sell him one. It was a move the company would later come to regret.

Faced with a completely inflexible market, Kuhn decided that if Sky wouldn’t provide its content for a price, then he would gain access to it for free. As a result the undergraduate began investigating the VideoCrypt encryption system used by Sky.

After what must’ve been hundreds of hours work, in March 1994 Kuhn debuted Season7, a piece of decryption software using a simple hardware interface that would enable viewers across Europe to watch Sky programming for free.

“This software was primarily written for European Star Trek fans outside Great Britain who don’t have a chance to get a regular Sky subscription and have no other way of watching the undubbed version of their favorite [sci-fi] series,” Kuhn said in a June 1994 announcement.

kuhn“I don’t want to cause any harm to Sky and I even asked them for a regular subscription some time ago, but they refused to sell one to Germany. So they have to live with the consequences of attracting the interest of high-tech freaks to the technical details of their access control system.”

Despite Kuhn’s best intentions, what followed was a Sky viewing free-for-all. With Kuhn’s software being spread between bulletin board systems and passed around on floppy discs, electronics enthusiasts across Europe began making and selling so-called “Season interfaces” for users to plug into their video decoders.

For those lucky enough to own a computer (a PC with a 12 MHz i286 processor was required to run a Season setup) what followed were some magical times. Satellite TV was a luxury item for most families so watching Kuhn’s software do its work (decoding was displayed live on-screen) was a hypnotic and exciting experience.

Sadly for Sky, however, Kuhn’s tools didn’t remain isolated in Germany where the company was doing zero business. Soon, large quantities of potential Sky customers in the UK and across Europe were also enjoying the service for free. That was exactly what Sky wanted to avoid but thanks to geo-blocking, that’s what it got.

Of course, like most hacks the fun eventually came to an end when Sky’s crypto experts threw a wrench in the works but the significance of Kuhn’s work lives on today. Rather than being driven by a ‘pirate’ ethos, Kuhn simply wanted to pay for a product that should have been freely available. When primitive licensing arrangements and restrictive business practices stopped him from doing so, Sky and its partners paid the price.

Today, more than two decades on, it seems that neither Sky nor its Hollywood allies have changed their ways. Still, it remains a possibility that the EU investigation launched this week will help them understand a thing or two about a free market while reminding them of Kuhn’s disruptive response to restriction 20 years ago.


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