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IT pricing inquiry sparks Game of Thrones for rights-holders

It's time to revisit Australia's siphoning laws

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Australia's recently-released report resulting from an inquiry into IT pricing has opened a can of worms beyond its intended target that should spark renewed debate on Australia's anti-siphoning laws.

The anti-siphoning laws mean pay television operators can't buy rights to broadcast certain sports until free-to-air television decides if it wants them first. Mass-market sports like Cricket, both Rugby codes and the Australian Football League are therefore likely to remain on free to air television for as long as broadcasters' businesses can sustain the colossal rights payments sports organisations demand.

The laws are seen as a win for Australian consumers, because it means Foxtel (the only pay TV operator with any clout) can't hoard sport as a way to herd sport-loving punters towards subscriptions, as has happened in other nations.

Just why the free-to-air broadcasters and the spontaneous athletic competition branch of the entertainment industry deserve that protection is a debate for another day.

For now, consider that Foxtel has recently proven adept at hoarding other content by locking up the rights to the next season of fantasy series Game of Thrones with a contract that prohibits paid downloads of the show during its first broadcast run. That leaves Australians with only one way to watch the show before spoilers emerge: a for $AUD59 a month, 889 a year, Foxtel subscription.

Vulture South doesn't know if there was a bidding war between Foxtel and Apple, but if the pay TV outfit won the rights without having to trump another bid, it has effectively siphoned Game of Thrones from all other media. That's just the kind of thing the anti-siphoning laws suggest aren't tolerated 'round here.

Which brings us to the Inquiry's recommendation that geoblocking be done away with in Australia, as a way of letting locals access hardware, software and content at lower prices in order to increase choice and stop local companies locking up the market with globally uncompetitive pricing.

Those who sign up for Foxtel to get Game of Thrones as early as possible will get a lot more than just that show for their $59 a month. They'll also consume the show in a mode used widely around the world. But they'll also pay more, if GoT is the main reason they sign up, than the $2.99 per episode Apple charged for the show's last season.

Yet the pricing inquiry seems, in spirit at least, to advocate more choice. If local provider are charging too much for software or content, the inquiry's report recommended, Australians should be allowed to shop elsewhere by circumventing technological controls.

Does that logic apply to Game of Thrones? The inquiry's report is silent on arrangements like the one Foxtel has secured for the show, but it's not hard to imagine that Australians looking for a legal alternative to Foxte might think the report gives them licence to use a service like the UK's Blinkbox if they want to watch the program legally without a subscription.

Were they to do so, it could be painted as a win for Game of Thrones' producer HBO, as Australians steal the show and others at extraordinary rates. The more of us that watch the show legally, the better.

Foxtel would doubtless hate it if the inquiry's recommendations mean Australian gain a newly-legal means of watching the show without a subscription.

How to sort out this contradiction?

A revisit of Australia's anti-siphoning rules seems in order. The relevant statutes set a precedent for locking content away, but were conceived and drafted before TV shows were available in multiple channels. Bringing them up to date is therefore apposite.

Rent-seekers will oppose reforms that apply the spirit of the inquiry's report to Game of Thrones and its ilk. But with colossal piracy rates speaking eloquently about how well sticking to old business models is working, a game of thrones over just how content like Game of Thrones is made available seems inevitable.

Bring it on, we say, before season four of Game of Thrones if possible. ®

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