File sharing: Piracy or activism?

Legality aside, the inescapable truth is that file sharers on the Internet are currently delivering a product superior to what you can purchase from where you’re supposed to.

This isn’t to condone piracy, and file sharing is not just about the free ride. Let’s consider for a moment the available options for enjoying a feature film in the comfort of your own home:

  1. Rented or purchased DVDs are region-locked, riddled with DRM and often require viewers to sit through ads for other DVDs before they can get to the content they want to watch.
  2. Movies or TV shows downloaded from the Internet are DRM-free, have no geographical restrictions or arbitrary file limits and can be enjoyed on a portable media device, personal computer or even this cheap and cheerful set-top box from Western Digital:

In the realm of music things are a little better, as smaller file sizes enabled file-sharing in the days of dial-up connections and got the music industry’s attention that much sooner. Yet even today the iTunes Music Store still sells files with DRM, and DRM-free storefronts like the excellent 7digital are still subject to the same region/market restrictions imposed by the music industry. Meanwhile, MP3 search engines can find virtually any song you’d ever want from any artist anywhere in the world.

If it’s starting to sound like I’m excusing theft here it’s only because the traditional media companies have fallen so very far behind in delivering what their customers actually want. In fact, their very business model is set up to fail in the digital age. In his book The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It Jonathan Zittrain scored a telling quote from a movie industry executive:

Our core mission is to protect our library of films, and earn as much as possible from that library over time… So that means focusing our efforts on what’s proven — i.e. the DVD — and only dipping our toes into new consumer technologies. We simply aren’t programmed to move quickly.

And in a (somewhat tangentially) related debate on the subject of Canadian television, homegrown champion #copyfighter Michael Geist represents the opinion of file-sharers pretty well:

If they (television broadcasters in this case) don’t make it available in the online environment there are other people who are going to make it available for them.

What are your thoughts on file sharing? Do you consider yourself a pirate or an activist? Let’s discuss!


  1. I don't have cable at my house. I'm 21 years old and savvy enough to realize that the internet it the ultimate on demand. I watch all the movies in theaters when they come out, to see if I should see them in theaters(Avatar), I watch all of the new Tv shows when they air and I even get access to paid channel events like payperview, HBO, NFL Redzone, ect. I watch all sports games streaming live in surprisingly good quality. If I miss an episode I can watch it anytime. I can start watching a new series from the very beginning, like lost, or something, even when the TV season is way ahead. I use mostly,, and and purchase a Megavideo subscription for 19.99 for 3 months which I've renewed several times. I LOOVE the internet. I am also the president of a music website soon to be in beta that will allow content creators to give their content away for free by still making money on unobtrusive ad icons, and utilizing discovery engine like social networking tools to tie content and people together and deliver the content right to them without them having to exert any energy. You can learn more at

  2. I think it’s simply a matter of convenience.

    When the new Trek movie came out on DVD, I bought one at HMV. When I got home, I realized I had accidentally bought the blue-ray version, which I was unable to play. But I really wanted to see the movie again. So I downloaded it via P2P and watched it on my computer. Then, at my next visit to HMV, I switched the blue-ray DVD for a standard DVD.

    This is the same level of convenience that has made Hulu a brand name in the US, not with first-run movies mind you but certainly with archived programming. I watched the entire 3rd season of Arrested Development on Hulu. Once Hulu gets past the geographical restrictions that have been placed on it (especially in Europe), I would not be surprised to see a dip in P2P statistics.

    P2P’d MOV files ripped from DVD’s has also opened up a new audience tier. I did not see GI Joe in the theaters. I did not rent GI Joe when it came out on DVD. However, I did download GI Joe and watched it on my computer. I was far less disappointed than I would have been if I’d paid the $12 to see it in the theaters or the $4 to rent the DVD. I would not have even minded if they’d had some commercials in there. I suspect that eventually “Straight to Internet” will replace “Straight to Video” in terms of studios dumping their lowest quality products on the marketplace.

    I don’t think the MPAA (or the RIAA before them) truly understand the magnitude of the Internet. If they did, they might realize how futile any battle against the core functionality of the medium might be and they might figure out how to adapt their revenue models accordingly. It could be that they run such a top-heavy operation that they cannot transform as quickly as the world around them. In which case, I shrug at their eventual demise.

  3. All great points, though I’m not sure if Hulu will ever be able to free itself from the regional blocking mandated by big media.

    To your third point there are, in fact, two notable (and quite good) feature films from last year that were distributed solely by P2P: (1) Nasty Old People and (2) Ink.

    There’s a third, The Lionshare which I’ve downloaded but have yet to see…

  4. Personally I consider myself to be an activist. With all the control corporations exert over my everyday life I feel it is an act of civil disobedience to upload possibly copyrighted content to The Pirate Bay.

    Great post, thanks for the link. 🙂

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