Exit Stage6 & the way forward…

This post was originally an obituary of sorts for Stage6, but I have added to it over the last few days and brought in a strand which looks at online video in certain areas in more depth. I also suggest some ideas in a Q&A with myself at the end!

stage6 shutdown

Stage6, the high quality video hosting / sharing site operated by DivX withdrew it’s service last Thursday (28/01/08). This was sad news for the community of users who had used the site to share videos over the last year and a half or so. I’ve been meaning to post this over the last few days, but was waiting to see if there was any other developments. On Monday last (25/01/08) the news was sent out that the video site Stage6 is to close down. Tom (aka Spinner) was the messenger who broke the news which was displayed as a blog post on the front page.

We created Stage6 with the mission of empowering content creators and viewers to discover a new kind of video experience. Stage6 began as an experiment, and we always knew there was a chance that it might not succeed.

In many ways, though, the service did succeed, beyond even our own initial expectations. Stage6 became very popular very quickly. We helped gain exposure for some talented filmmakers who brought great videos to the attention of an engaged community. We helped prove that it’s possible to distribute true high definition video on the Internet. And we helped broaden the Internet video experience by offering content that is compatible with DVD players, mobile devices and other products beyond the PC.

So why are we shutting the service down? Well, the short answer is that the continued operation of Stage6 is a very expensive enterprise that requires an enormous amount of attention and resources that we are not in a position to continue to provide. There are a lot of other details involved, but at the end of the day it’s really as simple as that.

There was an influx of thousands of comments to this of course, over three and an half thousand in the first few hours, a lot of them angry at “their” site being taken away and at the short notice of the announcement. Since then there have been migrations of Stage6 refugees, saving messages and contacting their friends to let them know where their new home would be. Some headed toward Veoh land, others went to Blip.Tv city and some flew over to Dailymotion central. It was chaos! People were cleaning out their virtual desks and checking around to see what sites allowed large uploads. Some needed to check if the contraband they were sharing would be accepted in these new abodes. It was time to flee and flee they did. Groups were reunited on MySpace, Facebook and other popular social spots online and no doubt in some of the underground speakeasies too.

I joined the site in the summer of 2006 and made of channel showcasing some of my work in November of that year. I put up some music videos I made as well as a remixed media piece, Re-Inventing Culture, which got a lot of attention on the site. I was delighted with this, as it was an old piece which seemed to have become more significant over time and has had more impact an international audience. To my surprise it was nominated to be in the Documentary category of the DivX Film Festival. It didn’t win or anything but I took this a a great compliment and it started my online friendship with some of the staff at DivX. An even bigger compliment was to follow when I was invited as a guest to take part in a panel discussion hosted by DivX / Stage6 at the Picnic Network last year and got to meet a great team of people who I am very happy to have as part of my network and to call friends (Ye know who ye are 🙂 )

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of Stage6 which was packed to the gills with new original content by fresh talent using this space as a platform for their own creations. This was the unique thing about Stage6, there was new content being showcased here in great quality and a good overall user experience. You could download the files and watch them while offline and the files were ready to burn to disc and be playable on many DVD players. There was a great community interacting there also and even though I was not so active in that sense (what with trying to stay on top of everything else out there on the web!), I could see it was good. I also, needless to say, I enjoyed that there was lots of good programming in the form of interesting documentaries, music videos and other content which was not necessarily owned by the uploader. This of course is the sharing aspect of it (and no doubt a thorn in the side for Stage6). Practically all the video hosting / sharing sites out there rely on this type of material as this is what the end users want to see, ultimately. As is widely documented, we are going through an experimental phase of development in copyright and the distribution of media. There is the demand for this change, a huge demand. The internet provides a way that interesting content can be seen again and again and again. This is unlike TV, where you are lucky if you caught a good show amidst all the muck or had a friend who recorded it. This is what the internet provides, a world of friends with similar interests that did tape that show last night. Big media are slow to catch on to this. For example, TV documentaries are a huge draw online and should be a sign to broadcasters that non-fiction programming has more value in an easily accessible archive. They want the web to be a secondary thing where some content may be streamed lived but not necessarily archived or even available in certain regions for that matter. There are still looking at how to lock things, how to restrict things. This is ok for for first showing of a programmes for example, but after a set amount of time it should be set free. Television is fleeting, it has it’s own schedule you adhere to, the net is full of choice and long may it stay that way.

As I touched upon above there is this huge issue of copyright going on here. Youtube relied on copyrighted material to be uploaded in order to get people onto the site. If it hadn’t been for Google’s deep pockets snapping it up and keeping it afloat, this duck would have been dead in the water a long time ago. But it is important that Google did step into this ring. They can afford the legal cost of arguing the case for digital rights. They can influence change on policy and in the attitudes of old media. They can play the game and slowly change the rules.

Another interesting thing with pirated material are the sites which leech from the host site’s bandwidth by uploading videos and making it non-searchable (no tags, untitled etc). Many have these have sprung up and shutdown over the years. This presents a different argument. These sites say in their defense that they are not hosting the videos, merely linking to them, thus their hands are clean. I’m not sure how these operate but as well as some are presented, you know you’ve gone underground when you get loads of pop-under ads, fake video links etc. Still though there is a demand so there is a supply. The latest films are quite readily available from them, much the same as the torrent sites. Two that spring to mind who have been rattled by Stage6’s closure are Quicksilverscreen and Stage66, I’m sure there are many others.

The music industry were too slow to see the changes coming and now the film and broadcast industries are making similar mistakes. Apple and their iTunes platform were quick to see the opportunity with music and competed with the pirates by providing a service that worked. Of course there were and still are problems with the digital handcuffs and the like but these are all necessary small steps to make big changes. How will Apple fair in their quest to being the prime internet video store? DivX have been in this area for a while now offering their VOD service to other companies such as Green Cine although it’s not very obvious whether this is still offered as a service as I’m not a member there. I also remember there being other sites like this a few years back. The ironic things is that this service does seem to be directly influenced by the original failed DIVX player from where DivX took their name. This failed because of it’s DRM way of working and it’s overall strategy was flawed which didn’t bide well with it’s customers resulting in it’s demise in 1999. An interesting point is that although that was a physical disc and was unplayable after 48 hours, the rental price was $4.49. Today, Apple are charging $3.99 and $4.99 for SD and HD new releases respectively and the file would disappear 24 hours after you start playing it! Although the new service is better it is interesting to see how the reaction to this has changed in nine years.

The DivX Connected box is a very nice piece of kit which has the cool ability to stream video from Stage6 off the web. Now that Stage6 is gone the box is a bit limited in my opinion. There are plugins which open it up to sites such as Revision3 and of course many other plugins such as Flickr and Google Maps which make this a piece of kit with big potential, you can also write your own plugins for it using their SDK. I don’t have one of these myself so can’t comment much on this but it should be a real rival for AppleTV, I do hope something will fill the gap that Stage6 leaves though for DivX content online.

So the big questions for the future (and my answers) are :

Should the price of digital products reflect their extremely low cost of manufacture and distribution?

– Most certainly. At present they are roughly translated cent for cent from the price of the physical product with no overheads for the production and distribution of a physical product. There is a whole chain removed from the process. There is no manufacture. This of course means a massive profit margin for the music, film and game industries. If the price was evenly balanced to reflect this perhaps the products would be too cheap? Is that how they see it? Well they are competing with ‘free’ so why not drop the price drastically. There could be a way out of this to balance the economies of the world and help people rather than corporations. As we know there is more than enough wealth, enough food, enough everything for us all on this planet, but we have three world of economy. All that needs to be done is a massive levelling of the playing field.. make the world flat as it was once believed to be! It’s gonna happen sooner or later.

Why rent when you can buy?

– You can’t resell a digital product like a physical product (If you can well I have a load of 2nd hand mp3 if anyone wants to buy them!).

Can there be a better DRM that allows creators to get paid but doesn’t restrict what consumers can do with the file?

– I feel that a fair way would be a music tax, a film tax or whatever type of individual tax is necessary, it should be like a new currency, the same value worldwide. Every media file can have an embedded digital signature, but that is it, no restrictions on copying the files etc.. the signature remains. Media player store the information of number of plays etc and when connecting to the net this is sent to a central server. There is also a way to vote if you like something via a button on the device. So here’s how it works. The creator gets paid a small sum for a play regardless and if voted for gets a much higher sum. There would be a system in place to ensure that no bots are used to cheat this. It’s as simple as pay per play and bonus for good work. Of course any hacker could probably change the signatures (as with any seemingly hack proof digital handcuffs) but why would they want to in a system as fair as this?

So to finish up this post I would first off wish to say thank you to the team (past and present) at DivX for the experience that was Stage6. It was fun while it lasted. I understand there has been many difficulties with this and it can’t be easy to see a project of such worth not being pursued for whatever reasons.

All round, I look forward to more innovation in the future.

Oh… and another good video site is Guba