I’m a pirate. A dirty rotten scoundrel. A scalawag. I commandeer ships on a regular basis, which I know is wrong, but it’s a personal problem and I’m dealing with it. But I’m also a media pirate. All kinds of media. I used to pirate music, though lately I rarely download music at all and I tend to buy from iTunes when I do. But I still download movies and TV shows and the occasional book. I’d like to say outright that I do not condone piracy, nor would I claim to have good justification for doing it. I have explanation, which is not the same. I pirate. I know it’s legally wrong, and I have moral qualms about it as well, but I still do it and I have no intention of stopping any time soon. Let me tell you why.
First of all, there’s the issue of TV. I have very little moral problem with downloading TV shows that are currently airing. I have a nice satellite system at home with just about every channel available in Canada and I DVR lots of shows. Sometimes I forget to record something, though, or I am away from my TV, and in those cases I simple find a suitable download. I see that as little more than downloading something I’ve already paid for. You can argue that maybe I’m costing the networks advertising dollars, but I always skip through commercials and my viewership isn’t counted anyway.
When it comes to catalog TV I recognize my sins. I still do it though. Renting shows off iTunes is far too expensive to be worthwhile, as is buying when I don’t know if I’ll be re-watching. I don’t have Netflix because Canadian ISPs are despicable and have startlingly low download caps (my internet is a high-tiered plan and I still only get 60GB per month). And let’s face it, Netflix doesn’t necessarily have everything I’d want to watch. There are a couple of mail services, and I’ve tried the “best” one, Zip.ca, and it was awfully slow and unreliable. I could try buying the shows on DVD, but then I just run into the same problem as with iTunes. And so I am left with two options I regularly use. The first is to borrow DVDs from a friend, which if the distributors had their way would probably be illegal too, or if I can’t do that I simply download illegally.
There is the other option, of course, which is to simply not watch that which isn’t available to me legally. While I may have slight moral qualms about downloading, those come from the fact that if I could pay a reasonable amount for my media I’d be perfectly willing to do so. The obscene number of Blu-rays on my shelf is proof of that. I have no problem paying for media, but I need to pay a fair price and I need to feel like I’m getting what I actually want. What’s the use in paying double the price to upgrade my internet service and add another $8 per month for Netflix if half the stuff I want to watch isn’t available? And more importantly, what’s the use in paying all that money for spotty content and service when I can download things more reliably, in better quality and free online?
I have effectively the same view when it comes to downloading movies, though I do that far less that TV shows. With movies, I see a lot of them at the cinema already, and with catalog films I often watch films recorded on my DVR or that I buy on Blu-ray. I generally don’t like watching films on my computer, so I don’t mind paying to watch on my TV or projection system. But sometimes I do download, and it comes from a lack of access to content.
For example, I love Criterion Collection releases, and I own close to 100 films released under their label. But I can’t afford all of them, and I have no easy way to rent them. There’s a store in Toronto that rents Criterion releases, but I don’t always have easy access. In the US every Criterion film is available on the paid Hulu+ service. Unfortunately, I live in Canada where we don’t get any Hulu whatsoever. Criterion releases are also extremely expensive to purchase, especially considering I would be blind-buying most films, maybe never to watch them again. Basically, it becomes a choice between not watching the films or downloading them illegally. Give my the ability to pay for Hulu+ and I wouldn’t even think twice. $8 per month is very little to ask for unlimited access to such fine films, and I’d gladly pay double that price if I was able. Unfortunately I’m not able and so I choose to expand my cinematic knowledge by being a pirate.
And I need to stress how important the cross-border issue is. Take Justified, for example. Until very recently, except on DVD, the show was simply unavailable in Canada. This can’t happen. There is no reason that in the new flat world of the internet we should still be hampered by regional distribution issues. Make everything available everywhere at the same time and you’re bound to see a huge drop in online piracy straight away.
Now, while I stress that I’m not trying to give justification for my piracy and that I don’t feel any serious sense of entitlement to this content (beyond believing copyrights last too long), I do think that there’s a lesson to learn in my reasons for downloading. It doesn’t so much come down to me enjoying “stealing” films. I’m also not a cheap jerk who refuses to pay for any content ever (and I do know a few people like that). I am sitting here, pockets open, willing to pay. But I can’t afford everything if it’s all too expensive, and I certainly can’t pay when I don’t even have the ability. Essentially, I pirate largely because it’s easy and open, not strictly because it’s free.
What distributors and copyright holders need to understand is that they shouldn’t need to focus so hard on stopping piracy outright. They never will because it’s simply impossible. Piracy has been going on well before the internet and it will only get easier to do in the future. Instead, what they need to do is change their entire outlook on the issue. In an age where media scarcity literally does not exist anymore, copyright holders need to free up their content. They need to make sure that everyone everywhere has easy and affordable access to it. Attempting to artificially create scarcity of media is pointless and it only causes people like me to turn to piracy where that media is available without much hassle. The idea shouldn’t be to stop piracy but to compete with it. To offer a better, easier option.
I used to download music illegally, but eventually the iTunes service truly became the best value. Sure, I can still download music for free, but the iTunes iCloud service, which allows me to download a DRM-free album as many times as I like to both my computer and iPhone makes it totally worth the $10. I now don’t have to worry a lick about accidentally deleting my music because I know I can always get it again from the cloud, and though the quality is not as good as CD, I ripped my CDs at iTunes lossy quality anyway. I can download from my phone or my computer quickly and easily and I gladly pay for it. Apple figured out how to do it, and their method practically saved the entire music industry from the brink of total collapse.
Film and TV distributors—and to a lesser extent, e-book publishers—need to follow suit. And ISPs need to get their act together as well. There needs to be an ecosystem which allows me, the content consumer, to watch what I want, when I want, where I want and all for a price I can actually afford. Because if not then piracy will always be there to fill in the “what” and most of the “when” and make up the difference by being free. Compete against that. It’s not so difficult. That’s how you’ll stop me from pirating, and I’m sure it’s how you’ll stop most people in general from pirating.