When I was 20 years old, I became a thief of movies and music and I never even had to leave my house. 1999 to 20003 were boon years to what I call "stay at home theft" because you could download just about any song, TV show, movie, or computer program by means of peer-to-peer networks like Napster, Imesh, Aimster, and Kazaa. Any piece of copyrighted work was at your fingertips, and it was all free and for the taking. From a copyright enforcement standpoint, those peer-to-peer networks were insidious: every time one of them died in a lawsuit, another took its place. And when Limewire, the last of the peer-to-peer networks, finally went down in a hail of fire in 2010, it didn't matter. It was replaced by a system of online file sharing known as "torrenting."
For the record, I have long since abandoned the practice of file sharing (and I do mean long since. I haven't downloaded a file without paying for it since 2004). I do not own a single pirated piece of software, MP3, or movie. Every single song I had downloaded illegally, I have long since deleted and replaced with legal versions through iTunes. I stopped it because, as I found work in the entertainment industry, I began to realize that people were putting long dedicated hours into creating something special; they shouldn't be rewarded by having that work stolen. The file-sharing issue finally hit home when I visited my wife (then my girlfriend) at college and spoke to a friend of hers. Upon hearing that I worked in the television industry, he proudly announced that he had illegally downloaded entire seasons of One Tree Hill. My first thought was, "Really? That's what you spent your time downloading?" But my second thought was, "If you like it enough to download entire seasons of it (which were readily available on DVD at Best Buy), why don't you support the creators by paying for it?"
I used to think of torrenting as a harmless vice, but it really isn't. Here are three reasons why:
- Torrenting is illegal! That's right, it's not just immoral, it's not just frowned upon, it is against the law to download a file that you didn't pay for through the regular channels of commerce. Torrenting without pay is stealing and is no different from walking into a Best Buy, sticking a DVD under your shirt and then walking out the front door. Even worse, if you're caught you could be liable for fines up to $150,000 for each willfully torrented work, or you could even face jail time. So ask yourself: is that episode of Gossip Girl really worth it?
- Torrenting results in the little guy getting ground into dust! From a policy standpoint, torrenting files without paying for them results in the copyright holders - often large corporations - mercilessly suing file-sharers into oblivion. Have you heard of Joel Tenenbaum? He downloaded 31 songs from Kazaa and now owes various record labels $675,000. I already wrote about how the large copyright holders have so much power that they end up going after people who have a legal right to use their copyright, but when people use copyrights for which they DON'T have legal permission, situations like this happen [short version: thirteen record companies sued Limewire for $75 trillion!! They ultimately settled for $105 million and Limewire went kaput]. Suing a poor kid for $700K is bad policy, even if he broke the law maliciously. But because torrenting is such a huge problem, this kind of policy ends up being encouraged and even embraced by our lawmakers. Hell, it's gotten so out of hand that record companies have even sued children and dead people for illegally downloading music.
- Torrenting is bad for innovation! When people download copyrighted files without paying, that results in studios and networks (who are literally paralyzed with fear over pirating) greenlighting only proven moneymakers. That's why every band sounds like Nickelback and every movie looks like it was directed by Michael Bay. Those artists still make money despite the rampant pirating. Think about it: the smaller something is, the harder it is to gain traction and the harder it is to become profitable. If that work gets pirated from the outset, then the studios will make less money off an already untested product. It's just easier to greenlight Transformers 9: Optimus Prime's Colonoscopy because no matter how many people pirate it, it will still make a metric sh*t ton of cash at the box office. Take a look at this chart. Eight of the top ten films of 2011 were sequels to established franchises and the other two were comic book adaptations. Ever wonder why most movies these days are sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, and adaptations? Established brands means that the studio will make some money, regardless of the pirates.
Here's what it boils down to: when you legitimately purchase copies of movies and music, you're telling the artist that you support her. You put her in a place financially where she can continue generating the stuff you love. When you steal a movie or piece of music, you're telling the artist that you don't care if she can make a living and you're threatening her ability to continue generating that work. Help me keep artists working and put a stop to the torrenting.