The excellent Meryl-Streep-channels-Margaret-Thatcher movie The Iron Lady is still running in Australian cinemas and hasn't been released on DVD anywhere in the world, but I legally watched a copy on the small screen on the weekend. How? I happened to get on the right plane.
I was on a brief visit to Adelaide, and ended up flying on a 737-800 which had just been refitted with the same in-seat entertainment system that has been in use on Qantas A380s for a few years now. "This aircraft has been in service for just over a week," the crew announced.
Granted, it's not the Wi-Fi entertainment system Qantas is also trialling on one plane right now, but I was still pleased to think I'd be able to choose what I watched in the air. But what really surprised me was the newness of the titles on offer.
International flights have long offered movies that haven't yet hit the home entertainment circuit, but it's been a less common option on domestic flights, where older movies and ancient episodes of Spicks & Specks on a fixed schedule are the norm. Don't get me wrong, I love a bit of Hillsy (and some people have accused me of being the Aussie Alan Brough), but having a choice of movies is definitely a better option.
As well as The Iron Lady, there were lots of other recent releases on offer, including Tintin, Happy Feet 2, The Ides Of March and Anonymous. Sydney-Adelaide is a long enough flight to watch a whole movie, and many of my passengers appeared to be taking advantage.
The TV was equally new. Indeed, one series — the new Christina Applegate sitcom Up All Night — hasn't shown up in Australia at all yet (Seven has the rights). I sampled a couple of episodes of that (OK, but I wouldn't call it appointment viewing), and then settled in to watch Season 3 episodes of Modern Family. Several of these haven't been shown by Ten locally, and as a result I'm now a month ahead of the local viewing schedule, and haven't had to do anything illegal to achieve that.
Of course, in-plane entertainment has its limitations. On my return flight (also equipped with the service), the Red Hat Linux-based entertainment system wasn't functioning when I boarded, and restarting it took a solid 15 minutes. The eventual announcement — "We have satisfactorily rebooted the onboard entertainment system" — suggests it's not an entirely uncommon event.
Nonetheless, it's good to see that there are ways in which regional distribution restrictions can be overcome without resorting to torrenting, even if we're still a long way from truly global release dates. I'm not suggesting that anyone is going to start buying plane tickets purely to watch movies. But the fact that there's enough flexibility in the rights deals to allow Qantas to show those movies and shows demonstrates that the entertainment industry can't argue that it's too hard to change its ways.
Lifehacker's weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.