19 February 2010


By (or by way of?) kevinmarks:

(Click to biggify)

As annoying as I find the all the warning screens and unskipable ads and such, I'm not sure there's really that huge of a difference in this case, but the broader point that people who pirate media get a better product at a lower price than those who pay for it is an important one. This in itself isn't a justification for "piracy,"  but it's an economic reality of DRM that is rarely if ever addressed.

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This is as good an opportunity as any to raise a point that's been bouncing around in my melon for a while. What's the morality of pirating TV shows?

For simplicity let's stick to network shows or at least non-premium cable shows. Those shows are literally given away for free. There are several thousand people in America who volunteer to have the viewing habits recorded.*  These people determine the ratings of shows, and those ratings determine ad prices. If you're not one of those people I don't see how it matters whether you watch while a show is being broadcast, DVR it, watch it one Hulu, or BitTorrent it. Either way the network is giving something away with zero marginal cost, and doesn't loose anything when you "pirate it."

(*Yeah, there are fifteen (binary) orders of magnitude more TVs in America than there are raters.  Not what I call a good sample, but so be it.  In the age of digital cable I can't imagine why this system persists.)

I contend it is better for networks to have people watching the show, even if pirated, than not watching at all.  Since there are network externalities to show viewership, every viewer (or every viewer who publicly acknowledges being a viewer) makes it more enticing for other people to also be viewers, either through making direct recommendations or by providing a more robust viewership community.

Because of this I believe networks may actually gain from people who pirate TV shows in order to shift their viewing time or device if the option they face is either (1) not watching the show at all or (2) downloading it to watch later.

People, for instance, like me. I'll admit I pirate TV shows in order to watch them the following day when I'm eating or taking a break from work. I'm not going to take an hour out of my evening, when I'm usually working, to watch anything but the best shows, but I'll definitely be willing to watch in 15 or 20 minutes chunks on my laptop the next day.

I'll grant there's an implied agreement between me and advertisers that I am breaking by watching a downloaded version with ads stripped out. Two points:

  1. I'm no more violating this agreement than I am when I switch the channel or turn off the volume or walk away from the TV during commercials. Either way I'm avoiding the ads.
  2. I'd download a copy with ads in it if it was available. No guarantee I wouldn't fast forward through them, but you can do that on a DVR anyway and no one objects to that on moral grounds, and it's still no different than walking away from the TV when ads come on, which isn't wrong either.

Note that I actually want to download a copy, not stream it. For various reasons relating to time shifting and computing resource consumption that's all I'm interested in.

I'm having difficulty seeing how my behavior is immoral here.  All the discussion of digital piracy I've seen is focused on music, with some of the attention shifting in the last couple of years to movies.  I don't think these even approach being good analogs to television downloading.

I'm sincerely interested in arguments about why what I'm doing is wrong.  No promises it will change my behavior, but I'd be interested in hearing any critiques.


  1. What is even worse, is that it is illegal for your hardware to skip the sections of the DVD which are marked as required.

    Next: you must read your books in the correct order!!

  2. Gasp! You skip around in books?! What kind of free-thinking radical would subvert the author's and editor's intents with that kind of deviancy?