I Steal Television Shows Because I Have To

This morning, via Cory Bergman and Lost Remote, comes word that Charter Communications has been sending letters to their customers telling them to stop BitTorrenting HBO shows. Essentially, HBO has been watching torrents and trackers looking for the IP addresses of everyone who is “sharing” one of their shows. Upon identifying an IP address and associating it with a filename like “The.Sopranos.S06E02.HDTV”, HBO will send a letter to the ISP who owns that IP address urging them to revoke that customer’s internet access altogether.

First let me say that I believe in HBO’s right to stop their shows from being shared online. Sorry, but I do. The Sopranos is property of HBO and the only license they grant is for you to either a) watch it on HBO, or b) buy/rent the DVDs. HBO is a premium channel so you pay for the right to watch their stuff and you don’t have to deal with commercials. Fair enough, as far as I’m concerned.

Notwithstanding the above paragraph, it’s interesting to note the steps that HBO must take in order for them to actually have these letters sent. They must first equip themselves with the same BitTorrent software that they seem to be fighting against. Then, they must seek out these Torrents, and I believe actually participate in them in order to verify that a file named “The.Sopranos.S06E02.HDTV” is actually the Sopranos and not a one-hour home movie from god knows who. So it’s clear they have to actually download the file. This would seem to be illegal, but I guess they’d let themselves off since they own the content. But with BitTorrent, when you download, you also upload, so not only are they sucking the file down to their machines, but they are also willingly distributing it to others. I know the goal is to just catch thieves, but isn’t this very entrapment-like? I don’t want to get any deeper into the legal aspect of this because a) I’m not a lawyer, and b) it’s probably possible to download from BitTorrent without uploading, but I just thought it was interesting.

Throwing HBO aside for a moment though, I’d like to publicly admit to my ISP (Qwest) and the rest of the world that I, too, steal television shows.

My cable provider is Comcast. I pay for a premium package including HDTV, an HD-PVR, way too many channels, and HBO. I watch stuff live whenever I can, and I don’t mind commercials. I take that back. I mind the Applebee’s commercial with the damn Gilligan’s Island theme song parody. I HATE that thing.

Occasionally, however, I am doing other things, such as working, when one of my favorite shows is on. In the past, I have either set my VCR to record these shows or set up the old Season’s Pass on the DirecTivo to do the trick. But since Comcast bugged me time after time to switch away from my DirecTV service and onto their HD Cable Service with PVR (that’s Painfully Volatile Recorder), I now have to rely on the technology Comcast has chosen for me in order to catch Survivor and 24.

So without getting into the ugly specifics of the Comcastorolasoft PVR (I’ve done that three times on this blog already), let me just say that this recorder obeys orders about as reliably as Internet Explorer renders CSS. That is to say, sporadically, sloppily, and at times, without reason. Not only have I missed entire shows but I also missed the final minutes of two extremely important basketball games even though I set the box to record well over the allotted time of the show.

So when you’re in the middle of a season of 24 and you miss an episode because your cable box was too busy, ummmmm, displaying the time, what do you do? What CAN you do? There are no repeats. There are no free downloads for cable subscribers. The only thing you can do is hop on Azureus and BitTorrent yourself the episode you missed.

And that’s what I do. About two or three times a month.

It’s not clear who is at fault here on the technology side so it’s hard to point fingers. It’s either Comcast (the providers of the service), Motorola (the makers of the PVR), or Microsoft (the engineers of the PVR’s operating system). Those who know me would guess I’d be most likely to blame Microsoft — and I do — but the only company I’m willing to give a bit of a free pass to here is Motorola. It’s not clear they have any control over what’s going on. Comcast, on the other hand, does. Even if the cause of this PVR’s instability is the Microsoft OS, they are the ones who approved and continue to approve its use in the Seattle metro area (other areas around the country do not use the Microsoft OS).

So who are the losers in this whole equation?

  • TV Advertisers: When I download a show, there are no commercials for me to watch.
  • TV Stations: When I download a show, I am not tuned to a TV station, so theoretically, if Neilson homes did this, ratings would go down.
  • Everyone involved in creating TV shows: By bypassing the economics of television distribution and monetization, I am decreasing the amount of money in the system and therefore the incentive to create great shows.
  • Qwest: Because I am downloading 350 megabyte shows, I am sucking up unnecessary bandwidth from my ISP.
  • Me: I hate downloading shows. I have to watch them on my laptop instead of the HDTV and there is often a few day delay in actually procuring the program.

And who are the winners?

The only person I can think of is perhaps the person who doesn’t pay for TV at all and is receiving tons of shows by virtue of this growing TV-sharing environment on the internet.

So what’s the solution to this whole problem? Well, I have a few obvious suggestions:

  1. Cable companies, please fix your PVRs already. Buy Tivo if you have to. In three years using a DirecTivo, I never missed a show.
  2. Whether you’re a cable or satellite company, offer as many of your shows on-demand as possible. Comcast offers most HBO shows on demand, so even if I miss an episode, I can view it whenever I want. In other words, Comcast and HBO have seen to it that if you pay for HBO, there is no reason you should ever need to download an HBO show illegally. Good move.
  3. Continue the policy of prohibiting commercial-free, illegal copies of shows to be distributed over P2P networks but change the game entirely by offering perhaps both pay-per-download and ad-supported versions of shows online.

I have no indication that suggestion number one will happen anytime soon, but numbers two and three are already at various points of development. I can only hope that when these new models mature, the economic model for television will remain viable.

Until then though, I will keep stealing TV as long as technology forces me to.

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127 Responses:

  1. Chris says:

    Sara writes “I only read about half of this page “

    Maybe you should read the whole thing. Morals have nothing to do with it unless you are downloading something you have not paid for before or current, whatever the case may be. You are forced at gun point to pay for the BBC in the UK, shouldn’t you be able to download anything this BBC has air? It is yours, you did paid for it. that is the agreement.

  2. Austen says:

    Where I live in the Middle East we do not receive any of my favorite North American TV shows in a single legally packaged option, so I truly am forced to steal ALL of my shows.

    I probably download an average of 10 episodes of various shows per week. I actually prefer it to TV because I can lay in bed with headphones on and get up close and personal with my widescreen laptop.

  3. DWBjr says:

    No one is forced to do anything. You want to do it, so you do it. This “forced” business is just rationalizing bad behavior. Once upon a time, people didn’t have that many options, but now… seeing a free show, people think… “Oh, I just have to have it! I’m being forced to steal this show!” It’s not true. Just do something else. Amazingly, not everyone should feel entitled to watch anything. I could say I’m “forced” to steal anything based on my financial situation, or my location, or my life… in truth, you can sit and watch whatever you choose. Personal responsibility isn’t dead, just largely ignored.

    (Editor’s Note: Yes, and nuance in language seems to be ignored a lot as well. :) )

  4. Sara says:

    Firstly, to Mike, you wrote this:

    *Like I said… yes, it’s stealing. I know that. However, I paid for it so I don’t feel guilty about it.*

    So first you admit that its stealing, and then you say that you paid for it, so you don’t feel guilty. That is basically in direct opposition to each other. You cannot be stealing AND have paid for it, because if you have paid for it, then it is not stealing. Its kind of like if I buy a cd, and that cd breaks. I am not then entitled to steal a cd from a shop because hey, I”ve paid for it before. I’m also not entitled to go online and download it – its the same thing as stealing it from that shop. You pay for the cd itself, not the rights to the music. Its wrong, and you obviously know its wrong and are doing it anyway. Don’t you have any morals? Why not just go to the shop and steal it, as that is effectively what you are doing anyway? Oh, that’s right – its easier to catch someone stealing from a shop that it is to catch them online. Its wrong, and whether you are going to get caught or not for it, you shouldn’t do something that is so obviously wrong.

    As for Austin, I agree with what DWBjr has to say – you are not forced to illegally download movies or tv shows just because they don’t sell them in your area. You have no rights to those tv shows at all, and what you are doing is wrong as well.

    I live by the morals that I have in my life, I don’t steal from people or companies, or from anything, and I always expect others to live with the same morals. Its a shame that so many people don’t see the error of their ways, and realize that they are not entitled to things just because they are here, alive, and they want them now.

  5. Roman says:

    I guess P2P sharing is becoming more dangerous and riskier. Especially in the States. Nevertheless one could still opt for one way downloads or watching those shows and movies directly on the web (like on contentstock.com that indexed over 6000 shows). The latter is untraceable. =)

    My principles are also against web-stealing. But it’s very hard to tell whether the material you are viewing online is copyrighted or not. This does not only apply to videos, but sounds, articles, etc.

    I found a middle way for myself by telling that as long as I can get something free, I get it. With one condition: I don’t propagate this (i.e. share on). So I don’t use P2P networks. If I download something it doesn’t hurt anybody to much as I don’t upload it anywhere else.

    And if I really like it, I buy the original.

  6. First of all i’m a japanese animation fan. There are some real shows
    I like too, along with movies with real people in it. I read all the posts
    on this subject matter, felt the need to explain and ask something.

    Show: Dragon Quest Dai no Daibouken (The Adventures of Dai)

    the show’s original language is japanese. you live in a place not showing this show at all. There are no VHS/DVD of the show in existance, the show only aired in japan, france, spain, mexico. The show started in 1992, aired in those places only for a short period of time and only had 46 episodes. mostly the only version available to download are the spanish episodes ripped from a spanish TV station.
    The only way to watch this show is by downloading it. it no longer is on TV.

    If it was avaliable on DVD I would buy it. if it was on TV I would watch it. I wouldn’t be downloading it if there were VHS/DVDs of it that I can buy. even if it were edited I wouldn’t care as long as I get to see it. heck there aren’t even japanese import DVDs of it either. if there was i’d buy those too. plus just because a show isn’t popular enough and isn’t put onto VHS/DVD, it doesn’t mean the show isn’t enjoyable.

  7. It has always been stealing. the only difference nowdays is we have switched from analogue mediums with which prior it was impossible to make a perfect copy of something and a physical copy was evident when you made a copy, now in the digital age copies are easy to make and always perfect. Because of this many think old rules dont apply but it is the exact same thing as copying a tape on a tape to tape rack back in the 80s. many did, many thought it wasnt wrong..

  8. Soopy says:

    I’m not trying to be mean but you should dump cable and go back to satellite. DirecTV and Tivo just announced a 3 year extension to their deal so my DirecTivo will keep working for at least 3 years.

  9. Freddy says:

    In the beggining there where no adds at all on cable tv, so by dl tv shows we are getting things done right again…wait…the cable company lose advertising $$$ because of this?, well, the hell with them, they already got our money for tv without adds and suddenly they want more money and what we see is tv with guess what… ADDS as in the public FREE broadcasts, to me that’s stealing so…

    I do prefer to download the cable tv shows to skip the adds, as I’m already paying for them and no, I don’t like adds leave them for the public tv.

  10. Murray says:

    Im from the UK an i dont see downloading a TV torrent and watching it at a later date is stealing, how many people used to set there VCR to record and watched your films, soaps amd show at you own time? what is the difference in getting a digital version to play on your PC? not alot if u ask me, 1 in the Uk ratings are not affected as the TV is a reciever and does not give an output as to what is being watched, 2 i have a TV license which i pay for, 3 we have BBC which has no advertising, so really by downloading a TV show especially a BBC documentary is not stealing and just the same as sticking it on VCR. and as i pay a TV license over hear the TV companies already have my money before i even switch on the set.

  11. Sara says:

    I currently live in the UK as well, though I am American and will be moving back there at the end of August. I too have to pay a tv license, and I do see your point about BBC shows and documentaries. However, most of the things that people are downloading and taking are not from the BBC. Not to mention the fact that as far as I understand how torrents work, you download it off of someone else, while someone else downloads it off of you. I’m sure that everyone contributing to this process does not pay towards a tv license.

    Having said all of that, my husband often misses BBC shows that he wants to watch, and the BBC is really good in offering the programs on their websites. So he simply goes on his laptop later on to the BBC website, and watches it off of there. NO stealing, no fuss. So if you’re talking about BBC shows, why don’t you just do that? That way no one can accuse you of stealing as the BBC allows this to happen by putting the shows on their website.

    As for regular shows though, however any of you spin it, everyone knows thats its stealing. If you didn’t think that it was deep down, you wouldn’t respond so vehemently to someone who outright admits that it is stealing, and therefore does not do it (ie me).


  12. steffyboy says:

    Since the dawn of the video recorder this debate has gone
    on and on and is tiresome. If speeding is illegal why make a
    car that can travel at illegal speeds. If recording is illegal why
    make it available ?

    I currently reside in Australia and dearly miss access to UK
    TV. Many shows are not shown here , many shows are not
    available on DVD here or in the UK. It takes 2 years for films
    to even make these shores if they are deemed worthy enough.

    I don’t believe in local laws if I don’t live locally. If I download
    LOST because my local provider sees fit to show it 6 months
    after it has aired in the US then boo-hoo to them. It’s up to
    them to fix that.

    Techincally if it doesn’t exist locally it can’t be illegal for me to
    have a copy. If I can’t acccess something I’ll get it any way I
    see fit.

    Put simply if it was available i’d pay for it .. I have cable and pay
    for all the channels …what more can I do !! Just hurry up and give me access to everything already !!! And quit making me wait.

    I am being arrogant but mainly because I’m angry ;-))

  13. andrew Knapp says:

    Yeah, here’s a REAL problem we have in our world today. Let’s devote our resources to saving TV.

  14. Blake1001 says:

    I live in the UK and altough we do receive many US shows like the Simpsons, Friends, Frasier etc on Sky TV shows like the Sopranos and Arrested Development are shown spuradically and often in the early hours of the morning, seasons often air up to a year after they air in the US. Shows such as How I met Your Mother and American Dad do not appear to be aired in the UK at all.

    I use torrents and Usenext to download TV shows, often 10 per week. With home Internet connections now speeding up to 10mb shows are becoming well seeded and I frequently download a show at 200kb/s+ and within 30 mins. Also entire seasons are readily avaiable and these download within a day or so. The quality of these shows is also very good, I can’t tell the difference between downloaded content and live tv. I stream these over Media Centre onto a 32″ HDTV.

    A few of my friends download TV shows off the Internet, we know that it is illegal but there seems to be no threat of being caught and no alternative. If I lived in the states I would subscribe to HBO and receive shows in high definition but at the moment there is no real alternative. I do purchase shows on DVD at the end of each season for future viewing and to contribute to the TV studios, actors and writers.

  15. Antonio Hamilton says:

    Two words Mike SLING BOX!! look it up its awesome

  16. Share TV says:

    1) It is possible to watch downloaded tv shows directly on your HDTV. I have my PC connected to a 50″ plasma and I get a better picture with downloaded shows than my normal cable. Not quite as good as HD channels though.

    2) As for speed. I’ve seen popular shows added before they finished airing in my timezone and I’ve downloaded an hour-long show in under 10 minutes in HD quality.

    3) I agree that we must support our shows so they don’t get cancelled. So users should only download tv shows if they are already paying for that channel. And buy the DVD if you don’t continue to watch it live with advertising. Doing so I think downloading tv shows will actually help the tv networks. Many of the larger networks Fox, NBC, etc. are starting to put their shows online themselves.

  17. rob says:

    how about this, please content providers, just because I am outside the US and Canada doesn’t mean that I can’t speak English or that I am a Canadian. Yes my IP is German because I work here, but I like English TV, not the shit that is spun here English TV dubbed (very well actually, the Germans are the kings of dubbing) to German…. I hate it and want to watch shows where I can hear people’s voice… man its crayz

  18. Geoff says:

    I only Download tv shows that i plan to buy on dvd when they come out (in 2 years). The delay in transmition between USA and austrailia is stupid especially considering we are still only just seing ep 10 of stargate atlantis season 2 and stargate sg1 is only up to season 8 ep 3 (i think they rarly show it). This is the main driving force behind downloading files both games and movies people are sick of wating months or years to have the entertainment that is enjoyed by there freinds overseas. So arange to aquire a copy by the only means posible Illegal downloading it.

  19. Interesting blog entry about stealing TV over BitT

    I enjoyed this blog entry which details why despite believing in HBO’s right to enjoin downloaders from stealing episodes of the Sopranos, he’ll continue to do it.

  20. thynkpad says:

    Is it Piracy if….

    I was just reading this article in Mike Davidson’s blog, and I wanted to share it with everyone because most of us have cable, and sometimes, we miss crucial minutes of our show. Some will just call a friend to

  21. Driven to Piracy by the Man

    I agree with him that keeping consumer choice painfully limited actually encourages folks to find that torrent file and download yesterday’s episode of Dancing with the Obese or whatever it is they’re watching on TV these days.

  22. […] As a TiVO lover and a web developer, I had to laugh at this let me just say that this recorder obeys orders about as reliably as Internet Explorer renders CSS. That is to say, sporadically, sloppily, and at times, without reason.Mike Davidson: I Steal Television Shows Because I Have To […]

  23. Jonas says:

    I steal television because there is a huge gap in quality between original audio and dubbed-over (I live in one of the countries with target audiences big enough to make overdubbing worth it).
    A few shows you cannot watch at all because the TV channels’ selection of US or British shows to bring over here follows TV target demographics which seem to love America’s Next Top Model, American Idol and so forth.

    I do not feel very bad about it, to be honest. I know it is the digital equivalent of stealing cable. But it is oh so very easy to do.
    Furthermore, I do not feel bad for the broadcasting stations since a) they often have recent episodes on their websites anyway (which, due to regional limitations, I cannot watch) and b) I would not be good for any ad revenue because most of the advertised products are not sold here.

    Prosecution of filesharers has started but is very slow. Watching TV on the internet via streaming video and linksites galore makes this even easier to circumvent – if video-hosting sites do not know what is hosted on their own servers, I assume they also have a hard time passing on visitor’s info to prosecutors.

    American and Canadian viewers have tons of choices when it comes to watching TV shows. You have TiVo, Netflix, …
    We don’t.
    This does of course not give us the right to just pirate our way into your level of comfort. But instead of waiting years for the DVD to come out (desperately hoping that the less popular but infinitely better niche shows even make the cut), I’m stealing TV.

  24. Jonas says:

    A quick addendum: I just read Rob’s comment on the quality of German overdubbing. While it is better than, e.g., Spanish overdubbing – I still believe the Spanish overdubbing voice actor community consists of around 11 people – once you’ve watched a show in its original you don’t want the copy. For me it’s like trying to get a replacement high by huffing paint.

    And an addendum to the ease of things: I set my Stage6 player to automatically download the episodes once they finish streaming. That way I can close and de-clog Firefox and watch the shows whenever I want. It’s basically homemade TiVo.

  25. Phil Paonessa says:

    Does anyone know of a site where i can get the HBO series “Dream On”, seasons 3-6? They made seasons 1 & 2 and then stopped making more but I understand that the show still runs in the UK..

  26. […] read more | digg story […]

  27. bob says:

    in my opinion if you buy a dvd and decide to share it with othere you ar intitled concidering you baught it it should be your to do what you wish . olso if anyone that steals films has half a brain thay would use an ip blocker such as peer guardian whitch can be downloaded from pheonix labs . unfortinatly it is not compatablr with vista but in that case there is many good ip blockers you can buy from around 50 pound a smal price to pay to keep your right to privacy

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