No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." So said Ralph Ellison, with more foresight than he could have ever imagined. What started with music has begun to flow over to illegal movie downloading gone rampant on college campuses. Duke is attempting to give form to the invisible man and save the day.
With the Motion Picture Association of America and all the major studios crying foul as students and others cram their hard drives full of "ripped" Hollywood films, a Duke product arrived on campus this fall as a stopgap. Cflix, a broadband streaming-video technology co-founded by Brett Goldberg '97, is slowly but surely making its way into the university's entertainment environment and, after a recent successful free trial, into computers around the country.
" Certainly, the Napster trend saw a proliferation of service to college students," Goldberg says of the once popular but now passé peer-to-peer file-sharing outlet, "so we see this as a commercially and legally viable service for that audience. We didn't necessarily view it as a way to cut down on illegal downloading, but we saw it as something that the MPAA and the movie studios would be drawn to."
Cflix offers something new. For a mere four dollars a month, or a fee from two to four dollars per viewing on their cable bill, procrastinating students can pick from the still-modest collection of recent and classic studio films, ESPN specials, South Park reruns from Comedy Central, and independent films through a deal with CinemaNow, the leading Internet video-on-demand company. Cflix brings the content to a dorm-room computer faster than a Napster or KaZaA, and at a higher quality.
" It was an easy call," says Peter Block '85, president of Lions Gate Home Entertainment, the majority owner of CinemaNow, who worked directly with Cflix's Goldberg. "CinemaNow wanted to try the idea out with Cflix; I was uncertain about providing films. They came back and told me that the test would be at Duke. It's actually the way a lot of decisions get made here: Bring up Duke and I usually acquiesce. That trial went very well, and it is now rolling out with a commercial launch and at other schools."
Despite students' increasing association of programs like KaZaA or Morpheus with their local Blockbuster, the idea behind Internet on-demand startups is that the low cost, legality, and maneuverability of the sites will outweigh the slower and more government-constrained illegal downloading. With Hollywood honchos forcing courts to take action and KaZaA, the most popular file-sharing service (550 million files available at any point during the school day) under serious legal scrutiny for the first time, Cflix hopes to propel itself into the next generation of the Internet. It has already made a major step by compelling Disney to broker its first Web-licensing deal.
The evolution of computers may have just led to their being the most viable source of pay-per-view entertainment. Only 50 to 55 percent of Duke students sign up for cable services, although 98 percent have computers.
Angel Dronsfield, senior director of information technology planning and business strategy at Duke's Office of Information Technology, helped bring Cflix to Duke. She sees the venture as a way to help fill the audience gap created when budget cuts forced Duke to drop the DTV movie channel two years ago, just as Napster was pushing into high gear.
But while Cflix continues to measure the preferences of Duke students--whether for pay-per-view, subscription, more titles, or more flexibility to "return" the film--downloading addicts continue, remorselessly, with their free illegality, until it comes at their expense. That time may still be years away.