I recently posted a story (Piracy as a social phenomenon - It’s not about the $) about a study out of Kent State suggesting that students aren't motivated money when they download songs, software, and movies from the Web. Rather, the researchers felt that moral justification (i.e., the students either saw nothing wrong with downloading and/or just liked sticking it to the man) and a desire to fit into a community of downloaders was more important.
I reported on it because I thought it was interesting, but then did a little experiment yesterday. I hadn't picked up the latest Nine Inch Nails CD yet, so I Googled "free Nine Inch Nails torrents". Seconds later, a really long list of sites claiming to contain or link to countless torrents appeared. I picked one of the top few and there it was. All of the Year Zero MP3s plus the cover art, all in one heavily seeded torrent.
For any of you who don't know, by the way, torrents are incredibly cool ways to share very large files. Torrent client software allocates space on your hard drive based on the size of the files designated by the torrent. Then, by downloading bits (both literally and figuratively) of the files in the torrent from anyone who happens to be sharing the file at a given time, the torrent client fills up the allocated space until you have a complete download. The download can be stopped, paused, or otherwise interrupted and resumed at any time, unlike most downloads completed via FTP or a web browser. This is the way to go if you're downloading Linux distros.
But back to my experiment. KTorrent (KDE's built-in torrent client) took about 10 minutes to download the entire CD into its own folder. My media player recognized the folder immediately and "Survivalism" was pounding out of my laptop speakers before I could say R-I-Double-A.
Later, a student told me I should have just used torrentz.com ("that's torrentz with a Z, Dawson," he said) and Azureus is a much better torrent client since you can manage downloads and uploads better. Oh, OK. I checked, of course, and the website did have powerful search capabilities and the client did a really nice job of downloading an Ubuntu server ISO.
Of course, I deleted the music, much to said student's chagrin. This was only research after all and I don't think ZDNet will back me in a lawsuit ("But Your Honor, I was only downloading hundreds of megabytes of pirated music for my blog!").
However, I now see that the Kent State study was largely so much silliness. Why do people download instead of buy? Because it's so darned easy! Click, click, click, boom. There's my music. Whatever I want. Click, click, boom. There's Shrek 3 before it's in theaters. And it's free for the taking. And no sirens went off, the RIAA didn't storm through my door, guns blazing, and nobody cared.
iTunes has found some success under this paradigm because it's really easy, too. Brilliant integration with a cool handheld media player and a nice interface on your PC, point, click, and 99 cents later, you have your new favorite song. $0.99 is almost free and the few old fogies like me who still worry about silly things like piracy have legal tunes, even easier than via torrents.
It all comes down to easy and free, though. After that first download, it became really hard to rationalize leaving my computer and driving to Walmart to buy a CD that I really couldn't afford on a teacher's salary (much less a kid's non-existent salary). I'm being a good boy because in the world of file sharing, us 31 year-olds are old legal eagles. I certainly get why our students don't bother, though. The question we need to ask is, given this paradigm, how do we protect ourselves as educational institutions with serious bandwidth just screaming to seed torrents from the legal fallout that appears to be brewing?