Downloading content illegally vs. getting away with it

Summary:I have mentioned a few times before my somewhat controversial view on Internet piracy - the end-user downloading (and uploading, to some extent) of mostly videos, music files, software - and the issues which surround it. As this generation of students are the forerunners of the technological age, born into an era where technology has surrounded our upbringings and shapes our future, when the two collide, it makes for interesting news.

I have mentioned a few times before my somewhat controversial view on Internet piracy - the end-user downloading (and uploading, to some extent) of mostly videos, music files, software - and the issues which surround it. As this generation of students are the forerunners of the technological age, born into an era where technology has surrounded our upbringings and shapes our future, when the two collide, it makes for interesting news.

To read up on my previously mentioned controversial views of this topic, you can find more here:

Some time ago, my editor-in-chief, Larry Dignan, sent me a personal email after I asked how I was doing. As a student employee, it's important to receive feedback from your superiors to receive praise but also ways of improvement. He said:

"...broadly speaking you represent the next generation of IT workers" and "what do the older generation need to know about your generation?"

Well this is for you, slightly-older generation. Piracy and downloading videos, music files and software without paying for it is illegal; there is no doubt about that. But it is a way of life, and it's not going to stop us doing it. Yes, you can throw ridiculous and disproportionate fines at students especially, thinking you're terrifying the bejesus out of the rest of us, but it doesn't. And frankly, it just makes you [the RIAA in this, and many of the cases] look powerful yet oxymoronically impotent.

Is it the cost of media?

Chris Dawson, counterpart in education/student blogging and good friend, makes a good point:

"Our students largely understand Internet safety. If creepy guys try to convince you to meet them in person after chatting you up on MySpace, don’t do it. Fine. But what nobody seems to understand is that just because a torrent for your favorite band’s latest album is available doesn’t mean you should download it and seed it."

But generally what he says, that "kids should knock it off", I can't believe in. I can agree with him on a legal front because to reiterate, it is illegal, but in a strange way it is now part of our culture. It's not as if we are loaded or have plenty of money to splash out on a £29 ($48.50) Blu-ray disk for a one-time bout of entertainment. When I saw The Simpsons: Movie at this price in my local HMV, I didn't stop ranting about it for ten minutes. The price doesn't outweigh the high-definition goodness. I could download a reasonably small 250mb version of the movie and stick it on my iPod to watch on the morning commute, and still be happy with it.

An interesting twist; the video below is available on BBC iPlayer, the BBC's free on-demand service to UK citizens, but was also separated into four WinRAR files and uploaded to RapidShare. Because iPlayer content is protected, I opted for the RapidShare approach.

Even though the RIAA have taken a chunk out of RapidShare in a lawsuit two years ago and now proactively removes flagged content as copyrighted, if you search hard enough for something, you can still find it. Not to mention, it downloads over HTTP which runs at your maximum bandwidth, as opposed to torrents which can be flaky at best.

Confusing but equally valid case study

Consider this interesting thought. I pay my TV licence which allows me to watch any terrestrial or digital broadcast on my television in my home. This TV licence is a tax on television, basically. This funds the BBC and in return, the taxpayer owns it (like most of the banks nowadays). BBC iPlayer lets us download television programmes onto our computer after the broadcast it should we miss it or wish to watch it again.

My friend also has a TV licence but has a slow Internet connection. So, I download a programme from BBC iPlayer, stick it on a flash drive, go over to their house, have a cup of tea and transfer the programme from the flash drive to their computer. It would take them days to download it with their connection, so I thought I would help them out.

The twist here is that you don't actually need a TV licence to download a programme from BBC iPlayer. But in essence, we still helped pay for the broadcast and the general running of the corporation. But I just shared a copyrighted television programme with a friend. Is that illegal? Honestly, I don't know - but if it is, that can only be described as utterly mental.

But then again, not only does the BBC endorse file sharing with BBC iPlayer, it actively uses peer-to-peer technology to reduce the loads on its servers.

The viable alternatives and solutions

Currently there are two main players when it comes to music and video downloads. Software and games are in a league of their own, especially after digital rights management software has caused more problems with the gaming industry.

iTunes lets you download exactly what you want at a fraction of the cost of an album in the shops, which has a bunch of songs on you really can't stand. Instead of spending £8.99 ($15.15) on an album, you could spend roughly £2 picking out two songs you actually like from the album. This literally is the best example I can give for value of money.

But then we have Spotify. Not only did Neowin provide an in-depth review of Spotify, it defines it as an "iTunes killer", which so far, it seems to be slowly chipping away at the service. It looks and feels like iTunes, works on both Mac OS X and Windows, but provides the content for free.

But when researching how Spotify make their money without getting the virtual crap beaten out of them by the RIAA and other corporations, it didn't seem to make much sense, nor could I find myself disagreeing with this reply.

To throw all of this into summation, downloading something which you haven't paid for is illegal. The laws are still unclear and frankly, especially with the Gary McKinnon case, I personally thought if anything went hideously wrong, at least I would be able to face sweet, sweet British justice. But avoiding using torrents is one way to avoid legal battles for the time being, and while it's not entirely free, RapidShare and other HTTP hosting services offer a relatively cheap deal for what you can get.

But if you can find services which offer a subscription service, similar to the HTTP hosting services - RapidShare, MediaFire, etc. - then go for it. Because iTunes is clearly too expensive and at least this way you fight a good chance of saving your pennies in the long run.

Will this make the slightest bit of difference to you? Are you going to continue downloading illegally just because you can? It'd be interesting to see what you think.

Topics: Hardware, Mobility

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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