I suppose I should begin with a spoiler alert. If you haven't seen the finale of Doctor Who, well, then you're going to be just as frustrated as I was when I received the following text message a couple of weekends ago.
"John Hurt!? Whaaa?" my friend wrote.
At first I thought the venerable character actor had died, so I Googled it. Nope, he was alive and well and part of the controversial reveal in the last moments of Series 7 of the BBC sci-fi show, with which I'm famously obsessed.
"I haven't watched it yet!" I texted back.
"I'm a raving, nonsense-talking lunatic," she texted. "Please accept my deepest apologies and, uh, hold this memory worm."
That wasn't an auto-correct typo—she was referring to a space worm from an earlier Who episode that, if you held it, would wipe your memory clean. I did try to forget the spoiler, but then a few minutes later, an email from another friend arrived in my inbox with the subject line, "uhhhh.. John Hurt?"
I can't really blame my friends for assuming that I, the devoted Whovian that I am, would have found a way to watch the show live online as it was broadcast on the BBC. In previous years, I might have, but this season I decided to walk the straight line and buy the series via Amazon since BBC had taken steps to fix a longstanding hurdle to the fandom.
See, it used to be that American audiences would have to wait days after an episode aired in the U.K., creating a perverse incentive to pirate it. If you didn't find a copy online, you couldn't discuss it with other fans across the pond and you were on constant spoiler alert on social media. Plus, when you have a show as addictive as Doctor Who, fans are going to find their T.A.R.D.I.S. fix any way they can, even if it means turning tricks in a back alley. Now the Beeb has struck a deal where American audiences can stream or download it within hours of airing. That was good enough for me—if I'm going to have an episode spoiled, I'd prefer that it be my fault for being slow, not because of geographical discrimination.
It's too bad the BBC hasn't applied this concept to all its shows. The fifth series of Being Human, a show about the trials and tribulations of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing a flat, aired in England in February. Earlier this month, American fans were told the BBC America broadcast would be pushed back to July. It makes me want to stake a TV executive in the heart, shoot him in the head with a silver bullet, then recite an incantation to banish his soul to hell.
And TV stations aren't even the worst offenders.
One of my favorite bands is I Am Kloot from Manchester, and, on Jan. 21, its latest album debuted at No. 10 on the U.K. Albums Charts. Four months later, the album still isn't available to American audiences through iTunes or Amazon. What the hell is a fan supposed to do? I could jump on any number of Torrent sites offering download links or I could configure my browser to look like I'm landing on the download page from a British laptop. The other option would be to just not have them as one of my favorite bands.
Then there's the publishing houses. A few weeks ago, I was at a house party where I met an Australian writer, now living in San Francisco, who'd written a novel about Indonesia. I asked her what it was called so I could buy it. Her response: Don't bother; it's not available in the U.S. I asked her to tell me anyway, so I could buy it when she does get a U.S. distribution deal. She said not to hold my breath: There just isn't a market in America for novels about Indonesia.
So, I went online. All the sites selling it said it wasn't available in my region, so now I have to conscript a friend Down Under to buy a copy and then re-sell it to me, which is now undeniably legal in the U.S., thanks to the recent Supreme Court decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (Disclosure: My employer, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, filed an amicus brief in the case.)
House Republicans might be obsessed with border walls, but media companies need to abandon this concept of national boundaries. They complain ad nauseam about the financial impact of file sharing, but at the same time, they're penalizing fans who try to follow the rules. I get that there's a reluctance to step on the toes of foreign distributors, but, c'mon, people: I've got money in my pocket for you. Why won't you take it?