Attitude Adjustment (Thoughts on Piracy and Downloading)

I was all set to write a blog about piracy, and attitudes towards it. It was going to be my prelude to actually watching the new TV show that everyone’s talking about – Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the long-running Zombie survival comicbook saga The Walking Dead. I had it all worked out – I would wait, I would watch it legitimately. I don’t have Sky, so instead I’d wait until it was on iTunes, and I’d buy the first episode that way, to give it a proper try.

Little did I know, of course…

There’s no need to fear the spoilers here. I’m not going to talk about The Walking Dead, simply because I haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen it because I haven’t bought it from iTunes yet, and that hasn’t happened for the simple reason that… it isn’t on there. One of the most talked about and anticipated shows of the year, and it isn’t on iTunes. You can’t legitimately buy it. You can if you’re in America. You can buy the HD version in the US iTunes store. But not in the UK. The first two episodes have screened here, but if you don’t have the FX channel, you’re simply not supposed to watch them.

I sometimes have to shake my head in wonder at the way some of the media is still jogging like an arthritic pensioner to try and catch up with the digital bandwagon. The whole e-books debate recently has gotten me thinking about piracy – especially, some of Paul Cornell’s very lucid and intelligent comments on the debate at his panel at this year’s NewCon. Now, I’m quoting from memory, so I apologise in advance if I get some of this mixed up – but one of the things he said is that how he was at a US Con recently, and various writers were naturally unhappy about the current state of piracy and downloading that’s going on, but that they weren’t prepared to be vocal about it. They’d say it in private, but they wouldn’t necessarily say it on a panel or in public, for fear of alienating people (or getting a Denial of Service attack on their website from an online group like 4chan). Cornell has been very outspoken about the subject (It’s understandable – he works in comics, an industry that’s suffering major damage from downloading and piracy), and him saying that did get me thinking about how endemic piracy has become.

Because, I’ll be honest, I’ve pirated LOTS. There are probably very few people in fandom or on the internet who haven’t at some point. The ability to download video, and the rapid increase in internet speeds, have had a gigantic effect on the way we view media, and the way we interact with media. I went through quite a few years of happy pirating – mainly downloading US TV in advance, getting to see shows sometimes just a day or so after they aired in the States, and also downloading ‘fansubs’ of Japanese anime (which was especially fascinating as there are so many shows that I’d never even heard of from Japan). It was exciting, it was enjoyable. I watched a lot of stuff I wouldn’t normally have watched. I watched a lot of stuff that was bad, and a lot that was good.

And then… I stopped. Weirdly enough, one of the things that stopped me – or at least, nudged me onto getting things legitimately, was Lost (the pilot episode back in 2004 was what opened the doors to TV downloading for me in the first place). From S5 onwards, I bought the episodes on iTunes – because I only had to wait a handful of days after the US broadcast (they appeared a few hours after the UK broadcast), and because I enjoyed Lost so much that, frankly, I wanted to pay for it. It didn’t feel fair to be watching a show that I was enjoying that much (one of the last remaining US shows recently that I’ve actively followed and sought out) in a way that wasn’t giving anything back or paying for my enjoyment. Because let’s face it – for every time you’ve said “Well, there are plenty of shows that I downloaded that I then went on and bought”, there’s a ton of other shows that you didn’t get around to buying. Or that you downloaded, and they weren’t particularly good. Well, I pulled myself to a halt, and the last time I Bittorrented anything was the Lost finale in May, and that was only because I had already paid for it (via a Season pass on iTunes), and I really, REALLY didn’t want to be spoiled. Other than that, I’ve been clean for over eighteen months. And I like it. I like watching an episode on iTunes and knowing I won’t get eccentric editing around the adverts, and that the file will be good, and that it won’t automatically end just before the end credits. I like knowing that I’ve bought something. It means something to me that I pay for the things I enjoy – and if I can’t afford it or don’t want to spend the money on it, then I don’t get to see it.

But The Walking Dead did get me thinking – because it’s a show that’s been very popular and very talked about amongst fandom. And of course, it’s been pirated. There were plenty of people on Twitter in the UK who were talking about how good it was swiftly after the US Premiere – and of course, there was just over a week between the US showing of the first episode and the UK broadcast. It’s accepted. It’s perfectly okay. There’s nothing wrong at all with it. And if I did say “YOU ARE ALL THIEVES!!!”, I’d be more likely to end up sounding like a maniac. Because, of course… it is illegal. It’s not only illegal, it’s disrespectful to the people who made the artistic work in the first place. There’s so much out there, in the piracy ‘cloud’ of data that rushes through the internet like a terribly confusing hurricane, and reaching out and grabbing some small part of it really isn’t hard at all. The worrying thing is that there are kids who’ve grown up in the last few years who are going to be convinced that downloading is just one of those things – that of COURSE you’re not supposed to actually pay anything. That the media is so loud, so non-stop, so prevailant, that it’s just there, that it’s a self-perpetuating machine. When it isn’t.

You can see it from the state of cinema nowadays, where interesting mid-budget films don’t really exist anymore – it’s blockbusters, b-movies and only a small smattering of anything else (which makes an intelligent, well-crafted movie like The Social Network feel shockingly welcome), and the big companies are embracing 3-D so insanely quickly simply because it’s one of the few elements of cinema which are difficult to reproduce at home. You can see it in comics, where any left-field titles that get published only have a small chance of surviving more than a few months, and only the titles with a long-running core readership are guaranteed to survive. You can see it in books, where the mid-list is being eroded by piracy, and the deep discounting of places like Amazon, to the extent that the future of publishing kind of scares me at times.

Piracy is wrong. It’d be great to live in a world where digital piracy doesn’t happen. But we don’t. And we’re not going to. Pandora’s Box has been opened- the technology isn’t going to go away. And chanting “You are THIEVES!!!|” at potential downloaders isn’t going to make them feel anything other than defensive. There’s an odd, prickly sense of entitlement that has come with our brave new digital world – because the technology is there to make something instantly commercially available (as with The Walking Dead), we’re both vexxed and offended when it isn’t – and many people use that as an excuse to download, that they just want it quickly and easily. There’s the DRM excuse, the ‘I just want to try it out” excuse, the “Well, DC aren’t doing all their comics as day-and-date digital releases yet, so frankly why *shouldn’t* I keep downloading?” excuse. I’ve used them. If you’ve downloaded, then you’ve probably used them too.

But at some point, you’ve got to move past the excitement, and the thrill of getting so much media so fast. At some point, you’ve got to realise that if someone marched into your house, expected you to do a gigantic amount of work, and then wandered off without paying you, you’d be mad as hell.

(As an aside – I’ve actually lived through a version of this – I once lost thousands of pounds in unpaid invoices thanks to a magazine going under, and they’d deliberately delayed paying the invoices until the point where they went bankrupt (and all my invoices basically went up in smoke). The most frustrating and angering part was the fact that almost everything I wrote got published – it was out there, it was doing its job of being a part of content in a magazine that was making them money (even if it wasn’t enough), but they weren’t interested in paying me for my services. So I lost the money, and since then, in my work in publishing, I have ended up a lot more careful about being wild and free on the digital frontier.)

Yes, DRM can sometimes be an incredibly frustrating thing. Yes, there are ways in which the modern media really doesn’t work well… but I know that when I eventually do get published as a novelist, the fact that some people will almost certainly pirate my book will, very likely, make me want to hunt them down and batter them with hammers. Novelists deserve to get paid. Trust me – I have an understanding of how much effort goes into the average book, and it’s a terrifying amount sometimes (a fact which sometimes makes me extremely angry when I see the kind of prices Amazon are targeting their e-books at, simply so that they can build a monopoly and squeeze the other e-book formats out of business).

Okay, I could ramble on for ages. What I want to say is this:

To the Media Companies:

The anti-piracy lobby need to change the record. Build a change in attitudes. Stopping piracy is like declaring a war on drugs or terror – it simply isn’t going to happen. Try and build the idea that supporting artists and the industry is the right thing to do. One of the things Paul Cornell mentioned in his talk was the fact that even the word itself – ‘piracy’ – gives it a certain sense of cool adventurousness, that you’re doing something bold and naughty. He’s right, and to be honest, I’d suggest that as far as downloading goes, don’t call it pirating, and don’t call it stealing – call it leeching. After all, downloading something is essentially parasiting on whatever bit of the industry you’re into – you’re taking something without giving anything back or having to bear any kind of cost. It’s an endemic problem that’s massively widespread, but it won’t change by waggling a warning finger. It’ll change by people talking openly about this, and it’ll also change when you realise that penalising customers who want to buy things legally is a very bad idea.

Bittorrenting makes things available EVERYWHERE – the licensing deals that the industry has been based on are suddenly meaningless (in the same way that Region Codes on DVDs are). The internet has connected the world together in ways many media companies (particularly in Hollywood) are still struggling to understand and keep up with. (The fact that Warner Bros are in discussions in the US for a Pay TV premium service to watch newly released cinema films at home is a step in the right direction, at least). You have a whole world of customers out there who are getting used to the idea that things are available almost instantly. And the trouble is, it’s inconsistent. Certain things are available instantly – others aren’t, often without any rhyme or reason. Things are available in the US that aren’t in the UK. Some things are available instantly, others (like The Walking Dead) simply aren’t. It’s often perplexing and confusing – and if there’s no alternative available, pirating on Bittorrent can often seem the easier choice. Even without discussing DRM, it is sometimes easiest simply to hook yourself up on Bittorrent – and basically, there needs to be a system that is as good, if not better, at delivering content. (In terms of actually obtaining content, Bittorrent is sometimes horribly fiddly and frustrating. The one advantage, aside from the fact that it’s free? Everything is available. iTunes is a pretty good delivery method for things like TV and Films, but like the still-underpopulated iBooks store, it’s always the gaps that stand out (like the fact that Fringe – a show I’d like to see Season 2 of sometime, and would be willing to pay for on download – also isn’t available).)

One idea I was discussing with friends recently is that you could have a US show made available worldwide online (say, via iTunes) at the moment of broadcast – but everyone outside the US has to pay, say, a pound more. It’s cheaper if you wait for the UK air date, but if you want to obtain it as soon as it airs, you can obtain it legally. Most people will happily pay for something if you give them the chance to. Stop hanging onto the past – move yourself forward. Is there any point in attempting to stick to ‘Exclusive’ release and broadcast windows in different territories when all people who want to watch the show have to do is activate a Bittorrent client, and there’s little to nothing you can do to stop them? Be progressive. And stop thinking that shouting ‘YOU’RE ALL THIEVES!’ will work. Because it won’t. Give people the service they want, and they will use it. The world moves on – things change – and you have to evolve or die. There’s evolution happening – but it’s lagging dangerously behind.

(A note to commercial TV competitors (especially those owned by a certain Mr R. Murdoch) – you may have a grudge against the BBC and want to see it cut down to size, but the BBC iPlayer is about the best online TV player that’s currently available in the UK, giving me a service that, to be honest, makes the licence fee feel like a bargain. The iPlayer is the current UK benchmark for online TV that’s available quickly and easily (for streaming and downloading) – if more companies (especially worldwide) aimed to achieve the iPlayer’s level of service and quality, I think it’d make a big difference…)

The main thing is this – if you treat your customers like they’re all potential thieves, all you’ll do is give people excellent reasons to dislike and resent you, and feel that by pirating they’re effectively taking you down a peg or two. People pirate for a wide variety of reasons – sometimes it’s because they can’t get it any other way, sometimes it’s because they want it fast, sometimes it’s because they’d rather have a version that doesn’t have DRM on it – and yes, sometimes it’s because they simply can’t be bothered to pay. But by turning the legal dogs loose on anyone and everyone, by lobbying governments to set up punitive enforcement strategies, you’re not just attacking the people who simply can’t be bothered to pay – you’re attacking everyone. The simple fact is this: pirates will find a way. The really dedicated people will still pirate, because the internet is such a bewilderingly complex place that it’s almost impossible to effectively police. Some casual downloaders may get scared off – but the people you really want to hit aren’t going to stop. Piracy isn’t going to go away – so use a different strategy. Explore alternate methods, and try to use the fact that the internet gives you a way of releasing things instantly, and across the world. You have a net-savvy audience out there who often find material that they’d happily pay for via piracy – but can’t, simply because the media doesn’t work that way yet. There is money to be made – and if you don’t do it, then some enterprising young turk is going to come along, crack the problem, and then you really will all be left swinging in the wind.

Change your attitudes. Open your mind. And enough with the legal malarkey.

To the downloaders:

You know the way you tell yourself that grabbing a season of a TV show you like off the internet doesn’t really matter? That grabbing an illegal copy of a movie from a torrent site isn’t really that big in the scheme of things? Well… it does matter. If you’ve watched something, and enjoyed it – you owe something. Yes, there are many ways in which obtaining media (like US shows) could be one hell of a lot easier but that doesn’t automatically absolve you of any wrongdoing if you want to watch True Blood S3 eight months before it airs on C4. You’ve watched something – you’ve enjoyed it – you should pay. Even if you’ve watched it through illegal, bootleg means. And… here’s the kicker… even if you didn’t enjoy something, you still owe something. The sheer availability of media does occasionally give the sense that you’re almost like a Roman emperor, getting to judge the fighters at the Colliseum – there’s so much out there, such a gigantic wealth of material, that even getting a season of a show doesn’t feel like much – hours and hours of material, and it’s easy to dismiss if it’s no good. The “Oh well, it was crap and I never would have paid money to see it anyway” excuse does not justify piracy, simply because if you’re not prepared to pay money to see something… you don’t see it. Simple as that.

What I’m saying is – we need a change of attitudes. Especially in fandom – in the places and forums where people genuinely love the material that is getting pirated – we need to be more open, and we need to understand that piracy does have a genuine effect, and that ALL piracy has a cumulative effect, in one way or another. (Anime is a very good example of this – fansubs have, over the last few years, had a pretty devastating effect on anime sales, meaning a number of shows simply don’t get released now – and this is pirating that’s being done by people who love Anime.).

This needs to be discussed. We need to talk about piracy, and be open about the fact that the technology that fuels piracy is never going to go away – but that the right and respectful thing to do is to pay for the content you use, to feed money back into the system. If there’s a legal download available, you get it – you don’t pirate it just to get it a few days ahead of the American air date. Yes, there’s plenty about the Media and it’s methods that need to change – but just because it isn’t bending over backwards to give you what you want at the exact moment you want it (and at a price you’re prepared to pay), that doesn’t give you the thumbs-up sign to go ahead and Bittorrent something. If you do, you owe. It’s as simple as that.

(Of course, there are the hundreds of complicated ways in which piracy aids sales – that spotting stuff uploaded to Youtube can very often encourage people to buy things legitimately. I’m not denying that – I’m just saying that maybe shrugging and saying “Hey ho, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” maybe isn’t the wisest move).

If you don’t support the things that you enjoy, and the things that give you pleasure, they will go away. Even in the case of blockbusters, the less money the big films or big books make, the less money there is to invest in the smaller, more interesting books or films. It should be right to simply stick your hand up and say ‘piracy isn’t good’ – that you shouldn’t be a leech, grabbing stuff from the endless cloud of illegal bittorrents that are out there without giving anything back. Plenty needs to change in the media and the attitude to piracy and life online – but we’re one of the things that need to change as well.

It’s a complicated issue, and I don’t pretend to have a definitive answer. I just hope that both sides of this equation can eventually realise that things can be better, and things can be positive – as long as things change on both sides.

(Is that sort of attitude going to result in everyone immediately paying money to buy legal versions of anything they’ve ever downloaded illegally? Of course not. But I can’t help feeling that trying to feed this sort of an attitude in – by making the approach to dealing with piracy (especially when it’s so endemic) a positive one (pay what you owe, support the things you love) rather than simply shouting DON’T DO THIS over and over again, that it will trickle outwards into the general mindset, and eventually will have a positive effect. Maybe I’m living in cloud cuckoo land, but hell – the view’s nice…).

20 thoughts on “Attitude Adjustment (Thoughts on Piracy and Downloading)

  1. I don’t download films, or music since I opened a US iTunes account, but I don’t think that downloading TV is the same case. I pay my cable bill whether I watch TV or not, and in six months or so, when my cable company buys The Walking Dead, my subscription fee will pay the creators of the show (eventually). So why does it matter if I watched downloaded copies of the episodes instead of waiting for them to show up on TV?

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  2. There must be something in the stars/air/water today. I’ve been posting about ebooks and piracy from the author’s perspective.
    Excellent piece and I entirely agree about the need for attitude adjustment.

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  3. it matters because your cable company might not buy The Walking Dead if they perceive it as thorough spoiled by widespread downloading.
    Assuming they do, they may not buy later series if the viewing figures are depressingly low, because so many people have already seen it on download.
    At which point, the series gets canned.
    Okay, worst case scenarios, but still…

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  4. As far as music, film and comics go, I’m with you – if people nick them they aren’t often going to buy them. I like your idea of calling them leeches.
    TV, though… I’m not sure how much harm is being done. Most TV is shown free to air in its country of origin – and often broadcast on the internet free to people who live in that country as well. If you visited the US you could get it for free – it doesn’t seem all that immoral to ask someone who lives there to pass it over to you.
    You could argue that US companies are losing out on money they would gain from the sales of international rights, but the BBC, Sky and C4 still seem to have regular bidding wars for hot shows.
    And the downloading of TV shows has had one very positive effect. Compare how long Channel 4 took to show the first episode of Lost, and how long Sky 1 took to show the last episode.
    I would suggest, though, that if people sharing TV on torrent sites wanted to demonstrate their goodwill towards content creators, a good way would be to include the adverts that paid for the programmes.

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  5. This is why The Walking Dead is appearing on UK TV – and all around the world – just a few days after its US broadcast.
    Once video on demand gets up to speed, downloading of current TV shows will just die off, because there’ll be no need to download something that’s already sitting on your box waiting to be watched.

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  6. In my experience, this has never, ever been the case. Just about every one of the shows I download has been picked up later by my cable company. On the contrary, downloads often mean that the show has buzz in the local market that encourages companies to buy it and TV guides to plug it.

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  7. I think you have a point about “un-cooling” piracy – it needs an attitude shift, not legislation, to make it work. It might be harder with TV and movies, because they are the work of so many people, but with books and music, there’s an identifiable creator or group of performers who will not be able to produce the same level of service, be that x novels a year or touring your home town, if they don’t get paid.
    And the pricing model has to change. Some publishers think they can charge hardback prices for ebooks because they are released early – but to the consumer, now accustomed to paying e.g. 79p a track on iTunes, this seems like a total ripoff. For all its other sins, iTunes and the App Store have shown that products sold at low prices will make more money overall than at high prices.
    In summary: Treat people like responsible adults and make product easily available at a tempting price and they will lap it up – treat them like criminals and they will behave like criminals…

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  8. What’s wrong with downloading TV that’s being broadcasted elsewhere?
    Well, as with most entertainment businesses, the TV companies use the profits from their successful shows to fund development of new material – it’s a business in which you use one success as seed-corn to fund another. Foreign rights are an essential part of this, but if the show has been widely downloaded then the market for that show is diluted, making it worth less to rights purchasers. That means less money.
    Less money means a lower budget for producers, poorer special effects, tighter controls and more interference (ironically) from sponsors, with more chance of getting canned if you’re not an immediate success. It promotes aversion to risk, and therefore more of the same, rather than diversity of content.
    Showing adverts from a different territory doesn’t help. It doesn’t generate any more revenue for the creators and the products advertised may not even be available in the territory it’s downloaded to. Saying that TV is free because you don’t pay for it directly is obviously untrue. Do TV producers have to DRM broadcasts before people get the hint that it isn’t free? Surely, that way lies madness.
    As someone whose books are published in eBook format and who has recently found them being widely pirated on certain file-sharing sites, I share Saxon’s concerns. These people are selling advertising (the download sites are running sponsor ads) using my content which they have stolen. Neither my publishers nor I get a penny for the effort and resources we have expended to get them published. There is something deeply wrong with that.
    The majority of authors are not well-paid, and saying that it’s okay to distribute illegal material because a few authors (eg: Stephanie Meyer, J K Rowling) are successful is being wilfully blind to the reality. Why does the morality of an action depend on the wealthiness of the victim? That’s a really slippery slope to be on.
    Even though my work is being stolen and shared around, I am not an advocate of DRM or of prosecuting downloaders. I don’t want to prevent people from accessing my books. I would far rather that we jointly develop a sense of honour and of responsibility and contributed to the market for new work.
    So, in good faith, if you have downloaded my book illegally and read it, then please purchase an eBook version of it. You don’t have to read it again. It will simply provide a very small contribution to this author getting to eat and pay his bills, and allow me the time and energy to write some more. Is that too much to ask?

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  9. Okay – this is an understandable view. The consumption of TV (and the pay-models for it) is a hell of a lot more complicated than something like Music or Film, and the model that exists at the moment is still very much (for the most part) a model that assumes that we live in a piracy-free world. It’s also a model where you start encountering a hell of a lot of grey areas where the difference between what’s legal, what’s accepted and what’s actually right gets very complicated (I seem to remember that, at least in the Eighties, it was technically illegal to record something on VHS and keep it for longer than about two weeks – my memory may not be accurate, tho…).
    The cable TV subject… well, that is a good point (and I am in no way pretending to have all the answers to this). It had occurred to me that of course, many people will have different and conflicting ideas about what qualifies as ‘paying’ for material. I guess the thing that bothers me about viewing it that way – that by paying for the cable subscription means that you’ve essentially paid already in advance – is just that where does that line stop? If you’ve got a movie channel that shows fairly recent movies (say, the equivalent of Sky Movies in the UK), does that mean it doesn’t really matter if you download a film, as it’ll end up on your cable TV eventually?
    Leaving aside the subject of off-air recording onto an HDD recorder (simply because it’s late-ish, and my head is hurting…), what you’re buying with your cable TV subscription is access to a service that’s going to give you exclusive chances to view content – either on the premiere date or the reruns. The cable channel is paying to broadcast the show with a combination of subscription fees and advertising – and the whole point of selling advertising is that the advertisers expect people to be watching – and if a proportion of the audience has already watched the show six months ago by downloading it after the US airdate, then that’s going to impact on the viewing figures, and may affect whether the programme stays on that channel (I know that this is the kind of thing that’s difficult-to-impossible to prove, in the same way that I know not every single recorded (or estimated) example of piracy necessarily equals a lost sale). You’re paying for the opportunity to watch it when the cable channel shows it – you’re not paying for a downloadable, pretty-close-to-DVD quality advert-free copy of the series that arrives months before the actual airdate and which, if you wanted to, you could duplicate endless times, or burn onto a DVD and never have to worry about buying a legitimate copy. Especially on TV that isn’t pay-per-view (and I’ve very rarely had Satellite or Cable TV, so that’s usually my only source), advertising pays for the whole shebang (except on the licence-fee-funded BBC)- and if you want to see a version without adverts, the legitimate route is to get a legal download or wait for the DVD release (I’m not saying that’s necessarily the best way of doing things, or the right way, but it is the legitimate way in the broadcast world as it is at the moment).
    You’re absolutely right that sometimes piracy can end up fuelling awareness of a title or show that might not have gotten attention otherwise (and there are many cases, in Music and e-Books, where giving away free material – which is of course immediately Bittorrented and file-shared – has ended up boosting sales). Again, I am in no way pretending to have all the answers to this – but it’s just the fact that TV downloading is quite as accepted as it is, and viewed by so many as something that really isn’t that big a deal (and that it would be very easy for people to extend this accepting attitude towards piracy in other areas of the media) was bothering me and made me want to write the post in the first place. I’m not saying that it’s evil and must be stamped out at all costs – just that people should be more aware of their actions and attitude in relation to piracy, and that just because what they’re doing doesn’t seem to have a measurable effect, doesn’t mean that it isn’t having an effect.

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  10. With a lot of things, it’s a matter of perception and scale. I remember an American friend of mine, at the beginning of the 2000s, who’d get her mother in the US to relatively regularly mail her over a package of VHSs, so she’d be able to catch up with her favourite shows (this was in the days when US shows took a small eternity to arrive in the UK). Now, of course, technically speaking this isn’t legitimate or legal, but it’s done on such a small scale that there’s not really any harm done. So… imagine if her mother wasn’t just doing it for her. Imagine she was also running off industrial numbers of VHS copies of those episodes, running into the hundreds of thousands of tapes, and sending them all abroad – free of charge, and asking no charge in return – to a whole selection of people in the UK, Europe and elsewhere whom she’d never met, and didn’t know. Would that really be okay? Because that is exactly what Bittorrenting does – it pushes the scale to industrial levels, and it does it really easily.
    The torrent sites are very rarely run by the people who are actually sharing TV – they’re usually search engine hubs that exist purely to make money off the advertising on the site, using the desire for the torrents to drive traffic. They’re profiting off other peoples’ artistic endeavours, and I can guarantee that they’d have no interest whatsoever in their income going anywhere but their own pockets.
    It’s the combination of pay-per-view and cable/satelite subscription fees, international rights deals and advertising that actually pays for television. Commercial TV drama exists as a mechanism to get people to watch the adverts in the breaks – aside from Public Service Broadcasting like the BBC (which still needs to be paid for via the licence fee), it’s the advertising time purchased by the advertisers (and the viewing figures the programmes around those adverts are able to obtain) that are the key. Downloading a TV show completely circumvents that, and gives you a copy of the show that is easily duplicable, and as near to DVD quality (or Blu-ray, if you’ve grabbed an HD torrent) as makes no odds. The effect of torrenting on TV may not be easily measurable, but it’s there.

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  11. With a lot of things, it’s a matter of perception and scale. I remember an American friend of mine, at the beginning of the 2000s, who’d get her mother in the US to relatively regularly mail her over a package of VHSs, so she’d be able to catch up with her favourite shows (this was in the days when US shows took a small eternity to arrive in the UK). Now, of course, technically speaking this isn’t legitimate or legal, but it’s done on such a small scale that there’s not really any harm done. So… imagine if her mother wasn’t just doing it for her. Imagine she was also running off industrial numbers of VHS copies of those episodes, running into the hundreds of thousands of tapes, and sending them all abroad – free of charge, and asking no charge in return – to a whole selection of people in the UK, Europe and elsewhere whom she’d never met, and didn’t know. Would that really be okay? Because that is exactly what Bittorrenting does – it pushes the scale to industrial levels, and it does it really easily.
    The torrent sites are very rarely run by the people who are actually sharing TV – they’re usually search engine hubs that exist purely to make money off the advertising on the site, using the desire for the torrents to drive traffic. They’re profiting off other peoples’ artistic endeavours, and I can guarantee that they’d have no interest whatsoever in their income going anywhere but their own pockets.
    It’s the combination of pay-per-view and cable/satelite subscription fees, international rights deals and advertising that actually pays for television. Commercial TV drama exists as a mechanism to get people to watch the adverts in the breaks – aside from Public Service Broadcasting like the BBC (which still needs to be paid for via the licence fee), it’s the advertising time purchased by the advertisers (and the viewing figures the programmes around those adverts are able to obtain) that are the key. Downloading a TV show completely circumvents that, and gives you a copy of the show that is easily duplicable, and as near to DVD quality (or Blu-ray, if you’ve grabbed an HD torrent) as makes no odds. The effect of torrenting on TV may not be easily measurable, but it’s there.

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  12. The Pricing model is tricky – one of the problems with the e-book debate is, of course, the perception that the only reason why hardbacks are more expensive than paperbacks is the physical costs of making a heavier, sturdier and bigger item, when in actual fact the costs aren’t really much more – that making a brand new e-book costs pretty much the same as making a new hardback. Deep discounting has gotten people used to the idea that they shouldn’t have to pay that much for books, to the extent that there seems to be absolute horror if anyone suggests charging more than a fiver for an e-book version of a new book (and just for reference – I don’t think they should be the same price as the hardback. They should be cheaper, but also at a point that actually makes publishing work – especially since the big successes are supposed to pay for the smaller, more dangerous and risky books).
    iTunes and music is a pretty good example – you’ve ended up with 79p-99p per track, and £7.99-£10.99 for albums. Of course, book price varies more wildly, but it does show that (especially for new material), if the pricing is sensible (i.e. not extortinately expensive, but not outrageously cheap either), people will buy into a pricing model. Considering how much effort goes into a novel (sometimes equal to, sometimes much, much more than an album), I’d say a starting point of £7.99-£10.99 for ebooks wouldn’t be insane (dropping to cheaper after 3-6 months). But you’re right that the key is treating people like responsible adults – whether or not that actually happens is a completely different story…

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  13. This makes a lot of sense. Good post, glad you managed to get it done.
    My thought has long been that if you called it something like Multimedia Fraud it would lose some of its cool factor.
    For the best part of 3 years I was on a Neilsen panel monitor, so I felt an obligation to watch the television I liked (and not to watch utter crap).
    I’m a patient person -which seems to be pretty unfashionable nowadays- and don’t mind waiting a while for something I what to watch/read. There’s always something else to watch/read in the meantime. I never understood downloading the last series of BSG when it was on the next day.
    I’ve only pirated (or got my husband to do so) at times when things weren’t available “without any rhyme or reason.
    Usually because any legally available version didn’t work (a problem with the early version of 4od). Or because the Virgin Media Catch-up TV on Demand randomly didn’t that weeks episode, which does happen and is annoying.
    Series catch-up on iPlayer and 4od is very helpful. However its clear that when UK channels buy US shows they don’t always have the same freedoms. We’re behind on Tru Blood (series 2) at the moment because 4od only shows one episode at a time. Some weeks you’re busier than others.
    As you say a change in attitude on both sides is necessary. But I’m sure that won’t be easy to achieve.

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  14. Thank you, that was fascinating (having followed your link from Twitter). I do worry about piracy, especially about its deleterious effect on the midlist (as a writer). But it does concern me that piracy may kill off various creative industries because people (fans, consumers, us) won’t understand that these things cost money to produce.

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  15. What you say about “a copy of the show that is easily duplicable” applies equally to recording programmes on the PS3, which is legal (I’m watching a series of Spooks now on the iPad that I originally recorded on the PS3).
    What’s needed isn’t a change in perception: it’s just for legal suppliers to provide a better service than illegal ones.
    iTunes and Spotify are popular not just because they’re legal, but because they are better and easier to use than the illegal options, and that’s having an effect on the illegal downloading of music.
    Pac-Man is a bestseller on XBLA despite everyone having already played it, and that’s because of all the added value – leaderboards, achievements, the convenience of having it on your current machine, and so on.
    Kindle books sync across devices, you can delete and redownload whenever you want, you can tweet favourite quotes, and other stuff you couldn’t do as easily with an illegal copy. There are books selling in the Kindle store that you can get for free, legally, on Project Gutenberg, and it’s because people like the convenience of it, the way it just works – and also because people are pretty much lazy!
    Torrents for TV took off in the UK because they were better than the existing distribution system – nobody wanted to wait 18 months or whatever it was going to be originally for Channel 4 to show Lost. But it’s definitely changing: Sky showing programmes in the week of release is a start, and the Sky Player (on Xbox, at least) is another big leap. I turn on my Xbox, and all my programmes are just there, waiting to be watched.

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  16. That will depend on what shows go behind a paywall – as The Walking Dead is currently here in the UK. I don’t have pay-TV – the family budget won’t bear it – and there are comparatively few shows we’d watch amid the oceans of drivel.
    Since we have such busy lives, there’s always a backlog on our freeview hard drive recorder, we’re content to wait for eg Chuck/Criminal Minds, which now get their first run behind a paywall, to reach free-to-air.
    But our only option for eg House since Sky nabbed it is DVD box set or illegal downloads – and as an author whose own livelihood depends on folk respecting my intellectual property rights, I’m not about to start doing the latter. So we’ve pretty much given up on House until the box set price comes right down. Ditto all of the Stargate franchises.

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  17. I entirely agree that the legal routes need to be better/easier and that will do a lot to help – as per iTunes/Spotify.
    Also that cross-platform common sense needs to prevail.
    Also, let’s not forget, illegal downloads are now, so I am reading, the way the majority of malware etc is spreading, so that organised crime can zombify remote computers.

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  18. Great article – agree with most of it (for my undisclosed sins.
    I should say that in the pre-torrent world I was spending about £300 a month on media (which included music / dvd’s / games / sky subscription / broadband etc). Which puts me scarily in the mid-level category on the spend front (I know a lot of folk who spend a helluvalot more) – can’t remember where I saw the figure but the average household is around £50pm all in.
    In the run up to my first kid being born I decided that optical media was dead to me – i just couldn’t see myself having to go to a shelf, find summat and pop it in a player whilst juggling a kid so I ripped *all* my CD’s (one weekend) and *all* my DVD’s (3 months – really would have been quicker just DL’ing them but wanted to do it right!!)
    Around the same time I did a going legit ‘checklist’ – a kind of litmus test for online services that if they achieved the majority of I would pay for happily – figured it was worth sharing as it touches on many of the issues raised by your piece and the subsequent comments.
    The holy grail of media consumption
    1) Content accessible as and when it’s available globally
    2) Content accessible on any capable device I own, now and in the future
    3) Advertising free, happy to pay a premium for that
    4) Ideally one destination / platform for everything
    5) Access to long-tail/back catalog content for those ‘what do you mean you haven’t seen/heard X?’ conversations
    6) Subscription based all-you-can-eat as opposed to per unit or at least capped
    7) Allows offline viewing / listening
    8) Revenues are fairly shared with content creators
    Interestingly the only thing which ticks most of the boxes currently is Spotify which I happily pay for, as a result I don’t download music anymore. They might not have everything but in general have ‘enough’, they do however fall down on point 8 apparently – most of the musicians I’ve talked to get little or no cash out of it but one would hope that would change in the future.
    Just focussing on telly Itunes has potential but £43 for a series is just ridiculous. I’d be somewhere around £2k per year just for telly plus as Saxon said – they are very hit and miss as to what ends up there. Will be interesting to see whether they do indeed bring out a subscription service next year as rumoured.
    Sky is also pretty close but obviously limited to Sky only content and you can’t turn off the ads – shame Kangaroo never happened
    There are of course fantastic services in the States, Hulu etc – but they are in the States!
    I guess in a long winded way to echo Saxons point – if you get the service right then people will pay for it basically. I certainly would and it’s people like me who benefit the most from the Losts/BSG’s etc but at the moment I’m still dl’ing my telly from the states ;-(

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