On the face of it, ‘licensing’ is probably a good thing. I’m not talking about alcohol here, BTW – licensing in the creative industry refers to handing over a chunk of money to the ‘rights holder’ (the person or company that made something) so that someone else can use it.
Why is licensing good, on the whole? Well, consider a piece of music that a TV company wants to use in a TV programme. Without licensing, the music writer would essentially have to sign over the music to the TV company, either for free or for an arranged sum. After that, they’d never be able to make money from the music again and might not even be able to play it themselves.
But with licensing, the music maker not only keeps the rights to the music, they can also let others use it, including the TV company. How much? This is the important bit. The amount depends on when, where and for how long the company intends to use it.
Plan on using it once in a TV programme that’s only going to be shown in the Ukraine? You pay x. Plan on showing it on satellite TV in just the UK and Ireland for the next six months? You pay a bit more – 15x, say. Plan on using it in a TV programme that’s going to air once a minute all over the world for the rest of time, as well as on DVD? You pay 1,000,000x, say.
Without licensing, the music owner wouldn’t have the opportunity to profit from their work in this way and the TV company might not be able to afford to use the music and would have to use something else instead.
If you cock up in the licensing, weird things happen. In the US, the theme tune for House was Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’; but here and in many other countries, licensing issues meant it was one of two pieces of stock music, depending on where you lived:
Equally, the makers of classic 70s US sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati never expected their show would end up on DVDs, streaming services et al so didn’t license the soundtrack for such uses; they also only licensed the music for a limited time, to reduce costs. Oops – double oops, given that the show was set in a radio station so featured groups of the time including The Grateful Dead and the Cars.
That meant that after the original licences expired, re-runs in syndication stopped altogether, until 20th Century Fox replaced all the hits with stock music instead, which is how the show aired for the next few decades. It wasn’t until some painstaking licensing work by Sound! Factory that the show got its original soundtrack back for its 2014 DVD release.
A few decades on, keeping track of licensing in this multinational, multi-channel, web-enabled world is tricky. It’s therefore far easier to impose blanket rules rather than try to do everything case-by-case.
Take Babylon Berlin. That’s a German TV show made by Sky Deutschland. Sky Deutschland is a subsidiary of News International, which also owns BSkyB, which has licensed Babylon Berlin for its Sky Atlantic channel.
And yet… there I was in Germany this weekend when I thought I might try watching the second season, using BSkyB’s Sky Go app. Here’s the message I got:
That’s right, even though I was in Germany, trying to watch a German TV programme made by (more or less) the same company as made the app and airs the show in the UK, I couldn’t. Why? Well, BSkyB generally only buys licences covering the UK and Ireland, as it’s cheaper for them than if they tried to buy the worldwide rights. But it does mean they have to be strict about not allowing anyone outside the UK and Ireland from viewing their content, even if it’s one of their customers simply trying to watch a show they could normally watch at home.
Of course, if I’d downloaded Babylon Berlin before I left the UK, I’d still be able to watch it in Germany. And if the hotel where I’d been staying had had anything except Das Erste and ZDF, I could have watched Babylon Berlin on Sky Deutschland no trouble.
All of which makes me think that maybe there needs to be a bit more flexibility, at least when it comes to Sky Go – seriously, Sky, you own most of the world’s TV channels, so could you maybe just add a database to Sky Go that checks to see if a local Sky channel has the rights to a show, too? Surely that couldn’t be too hard.