John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk


While I'm off work, I'm trying to clear my backlog of "LJ posts that I've been meaning to write for a while", so next on my list is piracy. Basically, I no longer have any dodgy copies of computer programs/songs/videos/e-books, and this is an attempt to explain why. I've discussed this with a few people in the past, and there's nothing really new here - I'm just trying to summarise all of my points into a vaguely coherent form, rather than restarting old arguments.

Back when I was at secondary school, I had a fairly relaxed attitude towards all of this. The internet wasn't an issue in those days, but stereos with two cassette decks in them were fairly common, which meant that you could do tape to tape recording (for computer games or music); you could also copy songs from vinyl records to audio cassettes. The average person didn't have the option of copying films, but I was aware of some pirate copies in circulation, e.g. from someone's cousin's friend. I wouldn't say that I did huge scale copying, but I did copy games/music from some other boys at school, as well as letting them copy from me.

When I went off to university in 1992 to do my undergrad degree in Computer Science, I carried on with this attitude. I switched from my old Commodore 128 to a PC, which made it easier to copy between floppy disks (no CD-ROMs at that point!), but all my music was still on audio tape. However, during my second year I decided to "go straight" in terms of computer software, out of a vague sense of professional courtesy - if I was going to make a living from selling computer programs then I wouldn't want other people to nick my stuff, and it only seemed fair to return the favour. (My career hasn't actually turned out quite that way, but no matter.)

I still carried on with pirate copies of music, although it was fairly low level, and I did still buy various albums as well. After graduation (round about 1998) I came across Napster, which seemed like quite a nifty concept - I could get hold of songs (as mp3 files) from loads of other people! My basic justification was that this didn't count as theft, on the grounds that the music companies weren't losing any money: I hadn't removed any physical items, and I wouldn't have bought these songs anyway, so they were no worse off. In other cases, there were songs which I'd like to buy, but which weren't easily available, e.g. a one hit wonder from the 1980s that only appeared in "Now 37", so I'd have to pay for loads of other songs that I didn't want (if I could find that album at all), so it seemed fair enough to just get that one song directly. I was also able to get hold of mp3s in bulk, when friends lent me CDs full of their backup copies.

As time went by (circa 2001-2002), I also found out about TV episodes and films that were being shared across the internet, particularly American science-fiction series where the episodes wouldn't be shown in the UK for quite a long time (if ever). This was pretty nifty too - as well as being able to enjoy the episodes, there was a social aspect of watching the new episodes with a group of friends, and spoilers were less of a hazard (i.e. I didn't have to worry about Americans referring to "old" episodes that I hadn't seen yet on the internet). It was easy enough to justify this, on the basis that I didn't pay to watch TV episodes normally (beyond the licence fee), so it didn't matter where I watched them.

So far, so good. However, the grey areas then started to get a bit more murky. In December 2002 there was a discussion within ICSF about buying some Space: Above and Beyond DVDs for the library. The slight wrinkle is that they were illicit copies, which were being sold for £65 + p&p. When I raised this as a concern, someone replied that:

the stuff is not actually dodgy or illegal. Because Fox repeatedly stated they will not release the series on video or DVD, the copyright dammages they suffer are non-existant. I belive a precedent was set a while back for cases where the company in question would suffer no damages that it was legal to copy such material.

I'm not a lawyer, but this seems rather unlikely, especially since the series has now been released on DVD. Similarly, it seems to be fairly common at comic marketplaces to see people selling videos/DVDs of films which have only just been released in the cinema, which I think is pretty iffy.

Skipping forward a few months, I made the decision on March 25th 2003 that I would "go straight" in terms of music piracy. Basically, I'd found that my original justification was slipping a bit - rather than saying "I'll only copy the songs that I don't want to buy", I literally found myself saying "Why bother buying this when I can get a free copy?"

Meanwhile, I was having some concerns about downloading TV episodes. Round about January 2003, Farscape was on the brink of cancellation. There was a discussion about suggestions for saving the series, and the producers mentioned that it got much lower ratings than Stargate SG-1; the quote that really grabbed my attention was "If all of those incredible fans who wrote in and sent notes and flowers and [whatnot] had actually watched it every week, we would have been able to do the 22 [episodes]." At first this confused me - why would people care about saving a TV series that they don't actually watch? Then I realised that this was a reference to people who do watch the episodes, but not on TV, so I started to give more thought to the economics involved. (I can't claim to be any kind of financial genius, so things are probably a bit more complicated than this, but I think that the basic principles are reasonable.)

I think part of the problem is that people perceive TV programs as free, rather than something that you pay for, so downloading an episode doesn't feel wrong. And the TV companies have only themselves to blame for this - I remember a Simpsons episode (where Homer voices Poochie in the "Itchy and Scratchy" show), where they met some fans, who were criticising continuity errors in the cartoon. The fans were saying "As loyal viewers, we feel that the producers owe us something". Bart said "How do you work that one out? They give you hours of entertainment, for free!"

Let's say that it costs a million dollars to make an episode of Stargate, which would include things like rental on the studio space, salaries for the camera crews, and electricity bills, as well as the more obvious costs such as huge actor salaries. Once the producers have paid out that money, they would presumably like to get it back, ideally with a bit of profit - to do this, they sell the episodes to TV channels (as well as VHS/DVD sales). This then puts the TV channel in a similar position - if they pay out large amounts of money for an episode, they want to recoup their costs. In the case of the BBC, they fund it with the licencing fee, but I think that they have to vaguely justify this expense, rather than showing a program that nobody watches (particularly if it doesn't have any educational value). For commercial channels, they earn money by selling time to advertisers, and the advertisers will pay for this if they think that they can reach an audience. Basically, the more popular a TV show is, the more expensive it will be to show adverts there - 30 seconds during the Superbowl probably costs a lot more than 3 minutes in the middle of the night. Demographics are relevant too, depending on whether you're selling nappies or sports cars, but the advertisers would still like to put their product in front of as many [relevant] people as possible.

Putting this into reverse, what happens if large numbers of people stop watching the episodes on TV? Lower ratings mean that a sensible advertiser will no longer want to pay the same amount of money for a timeslot during those episodes. This means less revenue for the TV company, so they won't want to pay the same amount of money to the production company. Similarly, if I cancelled my Sky subscription because I could get episodes free, that would probably have a knock-on effect. Ultimately, either the budget for the episodes gets cut, or the series just gets cancelled altogether. There is a tendency amongst fans to blame the "evil executives" for axing a show with low ratings, but I think it is (or can be) a sensible business decision.

This problem isn't necessarily limited to science fiction, but I think it is more relevant there, since these series tend to have a smaller (niche) audience to start out with, and the typical viewer is more likely to have the equipment for piracy (PC/high speed internet connection). Actually, that distinction may be fading nowadays, but I think it was more accurate back then. There's a Guardian article from May 2003 which lists the top 10 downloads from that time, and they are mostly SF, although West Wing is there too. Also, this is mainly an American issue; Firefly was cancelled before any episodes had been shown in the UK, so my actions wouldn't have had any direct effect on that decision, but the Battlestar Galactica relaunch was screened in the UK first and I saw a plea from the producers asking American viewers to wait and watch it on TV channels over there.

Anyway, I came to the conclusion that I'd stop watching downloaded episodes, and either wait to watch them on TV or get hold of the DVDs. Admittedly, it did help that by this point I was watching episodes on my own rather than in a group, so the delay only affected me - I can certainly sympathise with people who don't want to miss out on social events for the sake of an abstract principle.

Giving a specific example, I started watching Sliders on the Sci-Fi channel. They showed seasons 1-3 on BBC2 about 8 years ago, so I was able to finally watch season 4 (I still haven't seen season 5 yet). Now, if Paramount (or whoever made the series) is still earning money from those episodes several years after the series finished, then that gives them an incentive to take a long-term view with current series. So, although I'm not going to see a Sliders revival, I'd hope that this makes them less likely to cancel something else.

While I was watching Sliders, I saw adverts for The Power of Love CDs from Time Life. It looked like they had some decent songs there, so I decided to order the CDs. When I did, the website asked me where I'd heard about it, and I ticked the box for "The Sci-Fi channel". So, there are two issues here - buying CDs rather than downloading mp3s, and watching episodes on TV (with adverts) rather than downloading a DivX. (These CDs are in the "not available in shops" category, so I wouldn't have heard about them if I hadn't seen the advert). Now, I bought the CD because I liked the look of the music, not to subsidise the TV channel. However, the effect of this (hopefully) is that Time Life will think "Ah, advertising on the Sci-Fi channel is a good thing, since we get sales, so we'll keep doing that". Then the Sci-Fi channel think "Ok, buying popular series to show is a good thing, so that we keep viewers attention between the ad breaks". Then they pay money to the production companies, which leads into my previous comments. It's all a case of "follow the money..." Now, obviously they'll want more than one sale before they do this, but every little helps.

I think there are also two distinct motivations for people to download episodes. One reason is that you want to see the episode as soon as possible, either because it hasn't been screened in the UK yet, or because you missed it on TV, and you want to be able to follow the storyline the following week; the latter is certainly a moral grey area, since it can be frustrating when I've paid to watch something and then I miss it due to a powercut. The other reason is that you want to build a complete archive of all the episodes. So, I think that the first reason is competing with watching TV, and the second reason is competing with buying videos/DVDs.

Nowadays things are a bit easier, particularly for music - when I can buy a specific song from iTunes for 79p, that's not going to break the bank. However, it's not simply a question of being rich - I haven't replaced all of the mp3s that I deleted a few years ago, since I'd never even listened to several of them. I have noticed an odd tendency towards bragging in the past, e.g. "I have 10 Gb of mp3s on my hard drive!" "Pah, that's nothing, I've got 14!" I read an article recently which suggested that hard drives will soon be big enough to store more music than it would be physically possible to listen to in a human lifetime... But as I say, I didn't replace all of them, so I just choose between buying a given a track or not having it, and I can always listen to the radio if I want some variety.

Again, there are some grey areas here. I have no problem with ripping my CDs into mp3 files, since it's a lot more convenient to have all of my music in one place rather than having to swap CDs in and out of the machine. Similarly, if I could find a sensible way to copy music videos off some of my DVDs onto my hard drive then I'd do that (my last attempt created a ridiculously large file). If you have people sharing a house, it seems a bit silly to buy multiple copies of the same album, and it seems fair for one person to borrow it off the other person. In practice, if the album gets ripped to mp3, then stored on a central server, and both people happen to listen to it at once, then I don't see anything really wrong in that. I've also copied my old audio tapes into mp3 files (with varying degrees of success, since I can hear myself sneezing in the background/snapping my fingers in quite a few of them!), but there are a couple of tapes (Abba/Cats) that got physically mangled, so I'm not sure whether that means I ought to buy a new copy, or whether I can just swipe the (better quality) mp3 files from someone else. Even now, there are some songs that can't easily be bought, but I hope that they will turn up eventually; in the meantime, I don't see that I have any "right" to them, so I'll wait. (As an aside, if Channel 4 released the album containing their 100 worst pop records, I would happily buy a copy - "Let's get ready to rhumble!") At the opposite end of the scale, I think it's a bit iffy to see charity records (e.g. Band Aid) being copied around.

What I would now like to see is an easy way to buy individual TV episodes. According to the BBC, iTunes are now selling episodes of some TV series, but only in the USA. Meanwhile, Channel 4 are selling episodes of Lost. The snag is that these may not be great quality, and it does take a while to download them (e.g. longer than 45 minutes to download a 45 minute episode). I did download episodes of The IT Crowd from Channel 4 a few months ago, and I didn't mind the low quality when they were free, but I prefer to watch TV/film on my actual TV, rather than the computer screen. In the long run, I'll try to set up a Media Center PC or equivalent, but there are some technical issues to resolve first.

I think the ideal solution would be for shops like Virgin/HMV to offer a custom DVD burning service - I could request a particular set of episodes, then they could put them onto DVD for me (high quality/bandwidth), and I could take it home. In fact, that could even be combined with something like Amazon's DVD rental by post scheme; I could specify the episodes I want online, then get the DVD through my letterbox a few days later, to avoid queues in the shop. There are some series where I don't really want to buy a boxset, or even a particular disk with episodes 5-8, but I would be interested in a few particular episodes. For instance, I'd happily pay for a set of all the "Alpha Quadrant" episodes of Voyager, or for all the Groundhog Day inspired episodes in various SF series. (I'll expand these with proper lists in a separate post later.)

Regarding films, there has been a certain amount of publicity at the cinema recently - the idea is that they show a clip from a forthcoming film, and then tell you why you should watch it at the cinema rather than at home. I'm sympathetic to their basic principle, but I think that their campaign is seriously flawed. Looking at their points:

The screen is smaller, and you don't get surround sound.
This is true, and it is an advantage of the cinema. But does that mean that they don't want people to buy/rent DVDs after films have finished at the cinema, or to watch them on TV? For that matter, they're skewing it, since I sat a lot further away from the cinema screen than I do from my TV, so in terms of "how much does this fill my field of vision" I'd say that a TV can be a lot more than the 1/9th of the screen that they portray.

The picture/sound quality is dodgy.
In theory, yes, there's no quality control, but from what I've seen most dodgy copies tend to be pretty decent, rather than being full of static or whatever. In particular, it depends on whether they were filmed with a camcorder or copied from the original media (the latter seems fairly common).

You might get the picture blocked by someone getting up to go to the loo.
Again, this only applies to the camcorder version. But more to the point, it will equally apply if you're sitting in the cinema watching the film! So, if anything, that's a reason to watch a decent copy at home, when you don't have to deal with other people.

All in all, not exactly a triumph for their campaign, so I doubt that they're going to convince anyone. And given the problems that I've had at the cinema recently (people chatting on mobile phones nearby), I don't think that the experience is anywhere near as good as they're making it out to be.

Mind you, there is one related idea that I'm curious about. I've seen a few cases where people wander into the cinema about half an hour before the end of a film, presumably because they've been watching a different film elsewhere in the building, and so they're already past the ticket checking barrier. Arguably, there's nothing wrong with this, as long as they behave themselves, and as long as there are spare seats - the film is already being shown, so it doesn't cost the cinema anything. However, I'm sure that the cinema would prefer them to buy an extra ticket. So, suppose that you buy a ticket for one film, and you know that there is another one starting soon after it finishes (enough time for a quick loo break in between). Is it reasonable to go and watch two films for the price of one? I'd say no, but I am genuinely interested to know what other people think, to see where this scores on the "sliding scale" of piracy. So, a clicky poll to break up the text:

Poll #779455 Cinema

If you've paid to see one film, and there are no checks to stop you from watching a second film free, is it ok to do so?

Yes, always - no harm, no foul
Yes, but only if it was one that I wouldn't otherwise go to see
No, it's dishonest

If you would be willing to watch the extra film, how about counterfeit money? For instance, suppose that you could hack a database to get extra credit on your mobile phone card, or Oyster card. You're not taking anything away (unlike bank robbery), and arguably it doesn't cost the company any more to let you call/travel if they are putting the infrastructure in place anyway (e.g. if the bus is going to travel with empty seats); I'm sure there are a significant number of people who currently travel on public transport without paying fares. Where do you draw the line? How about actual fake bank-notes? If you spend them in a shop, the retailer still gets paid, so it's only a wide-scale problem (inflation), rather than "real stealing". There was a surprisingly sophisticated plot in a MASK comic that I read as a kid, where the villains come up with a brilliant way to forge money, but they don't keep it for themselves - instead, they fly across London, and throw it out of a helicopter, so that the people who grab the cash will then ruin the economy. On a more everyday level, dealing with grants, I've encountered the mindset that says "it's free money" or "it comes from the government", rather than thinking "it's Fred's taxes" - the tragedy of the commons strikes again. But I digress.

Since I'm trying to avoid going too far into strawman territory, here's a comment that I saw elsewhere a while back (unfortunately the URL no longer works): "I saw T3, but the ticket I bought was for Legally Blonde 2 because there was no way in hell I was going to contribute to Arnies Gubenatorial campaign fund. I like him as an actor, but as a politician, he needs to get real."

On the theme of "propaganda" (from both sides), there was a storyline in User Friendly a while back about the RIAA sueing children for piracy. I thought that this strip was quite significant, because I actually sided with the bad guy in the comic - once a singer has signed a contract with a record company, the music is no longer his to give away to other people.

Harlan Ellison has also (shockingly!) been outspoken on this issue, as seen at the KICK Internet Piracy site. Similarly, one catalyst for my own change of behaviour was that Peter David spoke out against Napster, and I do respect his opinions, so that made me re-evaluate my own actions.

More generally, when I've heard other people debating the merits of piracy in the past, one phrase that tends to come up is "But everyone does it!" Leaving aside the issue of whether that's actually a valid reason to do it yourself, what I'm mainly hoping to do here is raise awareness that this isn't the case, i.e. not everyone does it. Beyond that, I'm not really expecting to sway anyone to my point of view, but hopefully you will at least understand why I do things my way.

Oh, and if anyone is going to comment, be aware that this is a public post, so you may not want to confess to too much without knowing who's listening...
Tags: films, music, piracy, poll, tv

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