Piracy on the high seas of ones and zeros: A story of nostalgia, doom and hope.

Intentious on Anti Piracy, SOPA, PIPA laws, protests and the Future of Internet Distribution

When I hear the word “Napster” it brings forth a tide of joyous nostalgic emotion.

The above statement might seem an overreaction. To some I suppose, this would be correct. For me, it is a staple of my childhood, and I will revere it in hushed tones.

Napster was created in 1999. By 2000, it had become something that would fundamentally change people’s views of pirated content forever. Simply put, it was a filesharing program with an ease of use similar to that of a modern Mac, thereby making it accessible.

Back in 2000 when a computer savvy friend of mine, one year my senior, told me about Napster, even then it sounded too good to be true. Free music? Anything and everything I wanted?! Surely not! However, when I first booted it up and saw that dull, grey, uninspiring interface, the infantile inner geek in me knew that it was reaching forth towards Nirvana.

Reach towards Nirvana it did. The first track that I found myself procuring was the oft parodied and instantly recognisable “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. As most back then, I was unaware of the legal concerns surrounding the usage of such a program. It was simply put, a “brave new world”. I was 13 and I had the world at my fingertips. It was only a matter of time before I was hooked on information. Strictly speaking I was not doing anything hugely illegal per se, as I already owned a copy of Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind, which featured the track. I simply at the time wasn’t aware of how to digitize CDs to a computer for my own personal listening.

The word piracy used to conjure fantastical images of seafaring Scots, battling tentacled Kraken on the high seas, whilst slamming a tankard of mead down their gullets and demanding more wenches. Nowadays such images are dulled, though by no means forgotten (thanks to the heroic efforts of Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp). Now instead of the whimsical notion of sailors who would battle mythical beasts in illegally outfitted ships, the image would be relegated to the demons of binary, lost within the less appealing visage of a hacker effortlessly downloading or streaming the newest blockbuster action hit in his underwear in his parent’s basement, downing name brand energy drinks.

After the introduction of Napster, the world saw the rise of more peer to peer filesharing programs, such as Morpheus, Limewire and KaZaA. This not only easily enabled the downloading of music, but also film content, television shows pictures and documents. Sure, there was an 80% chance you were downloading a mislabelled file, and a 99% chance that was some form of pornography or virus or some wonderfully diabolical fusion of the two, but to the 15 year old me, it was all in the digital adventure.

Whilst other kids were playing outside, or whatever other kids who weren’t me did, I was discovering popular culture, one painfully long download at a time. The reward for this was a grainy pixellated camcorder video from a theatre with Bulgarian subtitles. Finally, video piracy had reached a point of awareness in me beyond the unfathomable needless “HAVE YOU GOT WHAT YOU PAID FOR?” advertisements on a rented VHS cassette.

The Internet evolved, and as it did, so did methods of piracy and distribution. As peer to peer networks grew out of style file sharing matured, information systems became faster and more complex. The kids who grew up with the simplicity of Napster adapted. As Napster and the other peer to peer programs fell, others rose. Faster internet speeds saw larger file sizes, a hike in quality, and more effective ways of illegitimately copying films.

BitTorrent soon became the entertainment world’s enemy number one. It operated on a different principle – instead of downloading from one person, you downloaded chunks of your file from others, increasing download speeds and CEO migraines.

It had become the forerunner to attacks. Evidence of this is the consistent legal example they made of The Pirate Bay.

However, the entertainment companies found a new scapegoat and a new way to make a splash – a highly publicised sting operation to charge Kim Dotcom, owner of the now infamous MegaUpload website and it’s affiliates with the damages  the entertainment world had apparently incurred. It was the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) that brought the charges, and have been leading these witch hunts for some time now.  We’ve all heard of the Jammie Thomas-Rasset who used KaZaA to download 24 songs, and was found guilty and was sentenced to pay fines to the tune of 1.9 million dollars. That’s $80, 000 per song. This sentence was so extreme even the judge felt that it was “monstrous and shocking”, and lowered it to an amount that is still exorbitant. I’ll remind you that the price of each of the songs on iTunes is 99 cents. A heavy handed approach such as this is ineffectual, as all it did was demonize the RIAA. It almost makes them sound like a Bond villain, preying on the weak who have absolutely no means of paying a ridiculous ransom.

The resounding issue with piracy is that it exists.

My argument is that it has to exist.

Allow me to embellish; I purchased the Extended Whizbang Gollywhatsit Collector’s Edition of Avatar the day it come out,  completely legally from a Big W store. I’m something of a fan, you might say. When I returned home to play my legally purchased Blu Ray in my legally purchased laptop, with a legally installed Blu Ray drive, with legally acquired playback software, I found that it did not work. Digital Rights Management had hit me hard by stating that since the encryption was of a higher level, my current playback software couldn’t take it, and instructed me I had to update to a new version to catch up with the DRM encryption.

I had bought my laptop two weeks previous.

The software came bundled with it, and had played Blu Rays up until then. I had to purchase an upgrade for my bundled playback software, just to view my completely legally purchased gains. I could have just as easily spent the evening downloading the disc image sans DRM the night previous, as it had already been leaked.

This is one of the many reasons that piracy will always exist. In this example, it was in order to help an average joe trying to do the right thing.

I won’t bore you by explaining articles about online piracy and the various issues with SOPA and PIPA – I’ll simply link to them at the bottom of this post.

Enough has been said about these that any argument I make will fall upon deaf, exhausted ears. Essentially, it was the US Government trying to take control of the Internet.

For a while there, I was wondering how Orwellian we were going to get all up in this information superhighway. Were Telescreens going to be implemented? I can tell you how that would have turned out. We only need to see the result of the social experiment Chatroulette to know what they’d be seeing…
(NSFW) Example 1:


(NSFW) Example 2:


Lord only knows what the Thought Police would make of all that.

The thing is, piracy doesn’t hurt entertainment companies anywhere near as much as they would lead you to believe. If you’re aware of the issue, you’re probably aware that they throw out some pretty big numbers to indicate their losses. Economist researchers from the University of Minnesota and Wellesley College deduced (using science and math, presumably) that piracy doesn’t affect the film industry.

How can this possibly be the case? The answer lies within their explanation, but also within my story.

I went to the movies at least once a month until I hit Year 12, and I was facing finals. It was just something I did to take the edge off. I liked the darkness, the smell of the popcorn, the couple quietly making out in the seats three rows behind me, the guy texting his mother a row in front. There’s the rumble of the bass, which vibrates your arsecheeks better than any massage chair. There’s the screen, that window into another world which makes things seem larger than life. Cupholders. Oh my God. This invention is the glory of glories, that wonderful appendage to my seat which allows me to place my drink down without worrying about spilling it, whilst I stuff my face with over-salted popcorn.

It was here I saw every single Star Wars film released in my lifetime. It was here I attended premieres for Lord of the Rings, The Matrix sequels, and Harry Potter. It was here I was awed by the spectacle of Avatar, the poetry of The Dark Knight, the layered story of Inception. It was here I cringed at Transformers, I moaned in pain during the perpetual awkwardness in Twilight, and yes, it was here I cried like a schoolgirl during The Notebook. It was here I took my first ever date, it was here I had my first ever kiss, and it was here that I experienced and immersed myself within popular culture. It was here that I educated myself in the art of the quintessential film experience that in no way my small computer screen could ever replicate.

Hypothetically if my humble beast of a laptop could indeed replicate the experience at home, I would still be going to the cinema consistently. If you had the money for that equipment in order to download and consequently replicate the majesty of your local multiplex – were you ever going to pay for the movie in the first place?

This is the argument that I postulate as a logical extension of the contention the study essentially gives. It states that the film industry is barely even hit by the piracy epidemic in terms of home shores, but declining film sales are more of a result of heavy Internet marketing for films that would not be released abroad for quite some length of time, in some cases seeing a decline of 7% of ticket sales. For films that gross in the millions, this becomes a significant chunk. Though in some cases this has improved, we in Australia all know how we are proverbially shafted each time a release decides to come a month or two later than the one across the pond. Generally if someone were downloading it in the United States, they never had any intention of seeing it in a theatre.

The same goes for television. When a hit show premieres overseas, there is almost always a significant delay between the broadcasting of said program and as such, many people turn to illegal methods of procuring their shows, lest they get spoiled for them by the Internet at large who have tuned in. The worst of this for me has always been the day of the Superbowl. I have not yet had a year where I did not know the outcome by the time I get back to my humble domicile.

In the US at least, the big thing right now is streaming. Services like Hulu, Spotify, Rdio, Grooveshark and Pandora all offer content streaming in either an ad supported format or otherwise. Hulu even offers a subscription service which costs less than a Blu Ray per month which allows you to stream a truly huge amount of television show backlogs.

Websites like 8tracks encourage user participation to create playlists for others, some topping over 10,000 people acknowledging it by “liking” it. The only issue with others, such as Spotify and the websites for American television that offer a catch up streaming option is the blocking of one’s IP if they do not live in the US. Why bother setting up a VPN network to get around it, when you can just as easily have it forever on your hard drive through a filesharing protocol. The rise of tablet PCs will only encourage the usage of these streaming services due to their rather attractive screens and limited storage space.

So I’ve been attempting to poke more holes in anti-piracy legislation than the guy who punches the holes in crumpets, but I haven’t offered any alternatives.

Just because I’m so nice, allow me to explain how the media landscape is changing:

  • First of all, get rid of your anti-piracy ads. The last ones didn’t discourage me from piracy, all they did was encourage me to find a way to download a car rather than steal one. If you insist on making them, I would advise you to not use copyrighted music illegally in these advertisements either.
  • Don’t use heavy handed gestures like the Stop Online Piracy Act to halt online distribution of illegal content, because it won’t work.
  • Remove DRM. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but for the savvy pirate, (which is an every growing community) stripping DRM is a cinch. (Check out the program “Requiem 3.3” if you don’t believe me.) All your Digital Rights Management therefore does is hinder your consumers, who are the ones supporting you. Look at the success of Dr Horrible. This series of shorts which were eventually stitched together in a short film of sorts was made for very little, was distributed on the internet for free, and made it’s money back before they had even thought about releasing it on DVD. Look at Iron Sky, which has used crowdfunding and crowdsourcing to create a truly unique piece of user generated content which will be released in theatres this year in April, and for under 8 million euros for a budget, outperforms films worth at least six times that much in the visual department. Look at the rise and fall of the internet series Pure Pwnage, which had an estimated 3 million regular viewers, only to fall into obscurity due to IP blocking on it’s Canadian ShowCase channel.

The internet is the future of distribution. It connects everybody and negates the need for someone to leave the comfort of their own home. This is an appealing concept not only if you are lazy, but also if you are sick, or under house arrest. I can sit at my television and watch content from YouTube. This is unremarkable – and that’s exactly what is so extraordinary about it. As I write this I’m listening to a track from one of my newly discovered bands, and will soon listen to the entire playlist. I will feel absolutely no shock, no awe. How can this be anything but a miracle? If you really sit down to think about it, and how even 6 years ago it was barely possible for an average consumer to do this, you realise how it truly is a great gift and how nobody cares. If only we could all feel that way about teleportation someday.

Of course, at the end of the day there will always be those who obtain goods illegally. Piracy will always exist. There’s no getting around that. But if the MPAA, RIAA and other entertainment and media associations are serious about their businesses, they will take heed and seek real change. Your draconian measures will not work, traditional distribution and creation methods are now going the way of the dinosaur. Evolve.


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Categories: Beliefs, Morals, Business, Crime, Entertainment, Politics, Law, Science, Technology

Author:Adam Wagner

Pop Culture expert, Singer, Filmmaker, Dancer, Fire-Twirler and Billionaire Playboy who in no way has a secret cave beneath his mansion. None at all.

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2 Comments on “Piracy on the high seas of ones and zeros: A story of nostalgia, doom and hope.”

  1. May 23, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    Hi there, I log on to your blog like every week. Your story-telling style is witty, keep it up!

  2. May 29, 2013 at 6:40 pm #

    Hello there! Quick question that’s completely off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My website looks weird when viewing from my iphone 4. I’m trying to find a template or plugin that might be able to correct this problem.
    If you have any recommendations, please share. Appreciate it!

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