Pirates of the Caribbean: Cable TV Operators & Copyright Infringement

April 29th, 2015

Written by Marcia Forbes

BCJ’s Partial Lock-Down Directive

About ninety-eight (98) channels are being pirated by Jamaican cable TV operators. Chairman of the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica (BCJ) told us so in a Press Conference on April 24th. The Commission called this meeting with journalists to talk about programme piracy and to announce actions against the almost 50 cable TV operators. As the Chairman noted, this move is to protect Jamaica’s reputation so that this country is not seen as a “rogue nation”.

In its first phase of action toward copyright compliance, the BCJ has issued a directive to cable operators. As of the end of May, 2015 they must remove nineteen (19) of the 98 pirated channels. These are cable channels out of the United States of America. To be removed from delivery to cable TV subscribers are 9 from the Encore Group of channels, 5 from Showtime, 4 from Starz and the Movie Channel Extra. Cable TV subscribers in Jamaica are generally dissatisfied with this turn of events. They hold firm that they are entitled to the channels since they’ve been paying for them in their cable packages.

In response to probes from journalists at the press conference, the Commission explained that phase one will be evaluated and that there will be continued dialogue with the cable operators. The BCJ opined that there may not even be need for a phase 2 in this exercise of protecting intellectual property and preventing copyright infringement. Its Executive Director argued for a new model for programme/channel distribution.

One appreciates the arguments for new models in view of the erosion of geographical boundaries brought about by the Internet, Satellites and other communication technologies. After all, my own engagement with the press conference was via its free live stream. I deliberately use the word “engagement” because not only was I watching the event via my computer but I was also actively reporting on it via Twitter and inserting my own comments over the course of the one hour press conference and some time thereafter.

Questions and comments from those physically present at the press conference as well as those to me via Twitter, sent me back to the 1980s when cable TV made its entrance to the Jamaican landscape. A large satellite dish sat atop the partially Government-owned Jamaica Pegasus Hotel, with plans to feed cable channels to hotel guests. I do not know how that went. However, by the late 1980s community cable TV started to take root. A combination of politics, poverty and opportunism prevailed to enhance the growth and development of community cable TV in Jamaica where the latter was described as  ’the poor man’s dish.”

Caribbean Free-to-Air TV Stations & Signal Piracy

Note, though, that signal piracy of US programmes did not originate with cable TV in Jamaica. Writing in the New York Times, October 13, 1983, in an article titled  ”Foreign’Piracy’ of TV Signals Stir Controversy”, Peter Kerr complained that,

“In the last two years, United States satellite signals carrying entertainment and news programs intended for cable television viewers in this country have been intercepted by a growing number of television stations throughout the Caribbean and Central America and broadcast without authorization.”

Those television stations were free-to-air and predominantly, if not wholly, Government owned. So, we see that this problem faced by the BCJ is not new. It has existed for over 30 years. And too, it is not peculiar to Jamaica or to cable TV.

In his article Kerr further commented that,  in Jamaica, for example, the Government-owned broadcast company last summer showed… ”Rocky III” and other films that were not yet released to Jamaican movie theatres.

The television broadcasts, which were taken without permission from the satellite transmissions of United States cable networks, caused a 50 percent drop in revenues for Jamaican theatres, according to Donald Graham…

Jamaican Business Man of Carib Cinema fame, Douglas Graham, was fighting for the survival of his business. The Government of Jamaica was brought to book by the USA and threatened that privileges under the Caribbean Basin Initiative would be withheld.

Caribbean TV Stations Push Back

TV Stations in the Caribbean region and elsewhere pushed back with arguments that:

  1. They were willing to pay but US copyright holders were not willing to enter into agreements.
  2. US satellites carrying cable channels were ‘infringing’/violating the air space of other countries and so these countries could rightly take these signals.

Whereas in the early 1980s and for some time thereafter, piracy of US satellite signals carrying TV programmes was wrapped up with the survival of cinemas in Jamaica, moving into the late 1980s, the battle began in earnest between free-to-air TV and cable TV.

Origins of Cable TV in Jamaica & Competition

While in the USA, cable operations came about in order to boost signals from US free-to-air TV (FTA TV) to viewers in remote areas, in Jamaica and some other Caribbean countries, cable operators developed business models in direct competition with FTA TV on at least 2 levels:

  1. Competing with Government-owned free-to-air station, JBC TV in the case of Jamaica, for pirated satellite signals;
  2. Competing with FTA TV for viewers by offering a more varied viewing experience. After all, how could a single channel FTA station such as JBC TV compete with cable TV’s multiple channel offerings?

Who Will Slay the Dragon?

And now the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica is facing-down the challenge of copyright infringement and trying to save this island’s reputation. As noted earlier, it is a challenge that is over 30 years old. It did not take President Barack Obama’s visit to alert us to the situation and its trade implications. Eons ago then President of the USA, Ronald Reagan, and then head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, did just that. Both men are now deceased but the challenge continues.

Who will slay the Dragon of signal piracy? Perhaps while we await changes in programme/channel distribution models, the BCJ needs to carefully craft a phase 2 and even a phase 3 of its action plan for copyright compliance. After all by their own report, BCJ’s recent directive only addresses about 20 percent of channels being pirated. What of the 80 percent? Cable subscribers want to know

Dr Marcia Forbes, a Caribbean Journal contributor, is a media specialist, the co-owner of multimedia production company Phase 3 Productions Ltd and Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Caribbean Institute of Media & Communication, University of the West Indies, Mona. She is the author of Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica and the recently-released Streaming: Social Media, Mobile Lifestyles.

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3 Responses to “Pirates of the Caribbean: Cable TV Operators & Copyright Infringement”

  1. Jeffery Sinclair says:

    “What of the 80 percent? Cable subscribers want to know?”

    Good Question… we have been willing accessories to privacy crimes.

  2. Anthony Thompson says:

    While the diet of pirated content was fed to the Jamaican consumer the BCJ was being heavy handed on local Content providers instead of encouraging the local industry which by now would have grown greatly over the past 11 years. Overseas content is very expensive at the correct rates and Jamaican consumers will be hard pressed to pay for it.
    I think the BCJ needs new leadership which will support local content creation.
    Just as Jamaica produces a high Volume of Music so we could be exporting local Content too like India and Africa.

  3. johnj says:

    Is everything corrupt and criminal in Jamaica.

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