Are You Down With the 'Loading?

Sometimes one crashes straight into these things without stopping to wonder whether anyone would be interested. Which is, I suppose, the ethos of the site. To write what you want to write not what you think other people would want to read. But this time I felt I had something to say – I wasn’t entirely sure what – and yet I couldn’t find a way to say it. I needed an "in" point otherwise it would just seem odd and out of place. Possibly it would appear to be a defence against charges that haven’t been levelled. Or just a way to assuage my conscience. Whatever. I want to talk about the ethics of downloading and I finally have my "in".

As mentioned in m’blog – and all over the tiny little bit of the internet which cares – the first episode of the new Doctor Who series has leaked onto the torrents. Three weeks ahead of its official launch it is being watched and not watched with equal passion. I haven’t downloaded it. I don’t understand torrents and this isn’t anything which will make me learn. Perhaps I’m just not that interested in the new series. Or perhaps I want to see it as nature intended rather than in a slightly squalid and seedy way. Or maybe deep down I know I’m too scared and too stupid to understand torrents and the whole sub-culture which surrounds them.

Torrents are in the news as Britain is apparently the biggest abuser of the torrent network when it comes to television. This makes perfect sense – America makes TV shows that the world buys, Americans can watch them on TV, most other countries use subtitles or dubbing as English is not their first language and that leaves Britain as the prime "market" for torrents. The UK broadcasters (mainly Sky) complain that this hurts them as they are supposed to have the UK premiere rights to the shows. Personally I doubt whether this has much effect (if any) on Sky One and their ratings. Their commenting on the story is principally a way to get "Sky One" and "UK exclusives" and other free advertising into the press. The media and hardcore net users may believe that the internet is the centre of the universe but for the vast majority of people out there it is an occasional tool or recreation toy. Hard core Trekkos (to use an example) have almost certainly had ways to get videos and (more recently) DVDs of new episodes sent over from America. The torrent phenomenon is just a new twist on an old idea and its impact is negligible. Heck, some may even do it as a way to avoid Sky's insulting editing/censorship policy where their rusty scissors cut minutes out of every episode either because they want to fit more adverts into the hour or they just can't be bothered to schedule something appropriately.

The peer-to-peer networks are also in the news. Fines have been handed out in Britain and America to those uploading huge amounts of music. The music industry were faced with the biggest crisis in their history as the public finally had an easy way to get music for free. It would mean the end of the CD, possibly the end of the music industry itself. The public, it seems, didn’t care. Sympathy for billionaire pop stars losing out on a few thousand sales was not forthcoming. The more the music industry cried the less the people cared. And with good reason. 2004 saw the highest CD sales in history. Personally, if I download music from a P2P application I do so because I want to try something before I buy it. If I don’t like it, I delete it. If I do like it then I buy it. This is what the music industry really fears – people making an informed choice instead of falling for blind hype. I download a demo before buying software and see using P2P to try a new artist as exactly the same thing. And from the rise in CD sales, so do other people.

My main use for P2P has been downloading things that aren’t available to buy. A couple of years ago I hunted down the soundtrack to every unreleased missing episode of Doctor Who. Poor quality copies they may have been but I wanted them anyway. Since then I’ve replaced every one of those downloads with the official BBC CDs when they were released. Ditto Paul Temple – I downloaded four unreleased serials and have replaced three and will, in May, replace the final one with a remastered, restored and generally improved official copy. There is a wealth of material out there that hasn’t – and possibly won’t – be released. I don’t see anything immoral or unethical about downloading such programmes.

The solution to the downloading "crisis" may shortly be upon us. One by one the ISPs are introducing download caps to their broadband services. Some of these are ludicrous – 2 or 3 gigabytes per month – while my own ntl: service is limited to 30Gb per month or 1Gb per day (it’s currently the latter and will shortly be the former – they sound the same but there is a subtle difference). That will limit the potential for 24/7 P2Ping or torrenting. I genuinely think there is only a small minority who really abuse the system. They are the ones who get sucked into it body and soul. The sort who watch every attempt to download something of theirs and get off on judging whether you are worthy or not. When their parents start getting letters from their ISP telling them that they are way over cap a week into the month they’ll soon start putting their foot down.

Also under this heading are illegally copied DVDs. The internet is usually involved somewhere. Again I draw a line between what I will and won’t do. I’ve bought copied discs through eBay. I’ve bought several Pride Fighting Championships, all four NWA:TNA pay-per-views and a couple of classic British wrestling compilations. The common factor here is that none of these are available to buy in shops. The strain etched on the faces of every shelf around me shows how many DVDs I buy. From blockbusters to obscure items (Jupiter Moon anyone? And the next three volumes already pre-ordered) I buy a lot of DVDs. More than anyone could watch. So I’m not a freeloader who wants something for nothing. But at the same time I know what I want to watch and if that isn’t available in stores then I’ll go elsewhere. You’ll notice that I haven’t bought any Ultimate Fighting Championship discs this way – that’s because they get official releases over here and I’m happy to rent them legally.

Something I won’t do – and I’m troubled by how many good people will do it – is buy pirate DVDs of movies that are still in the cinema. Whether they’re sourced from a camcorder smuggled into the multiplex or from a leaked copy sent to an Oscars judge, they cross the line. Not so much because they are ripping off the big studios (one still hears how much movie stars get paid and this doesn’t engender sympathy) but because there has to be something dark behind them. It is one thing to record a wrestling pay per view off your American telly and sell copies of it on eBay. It is quite another to get hold of a brand new blockbuster and make hundreds of thousands of copies. There is organised crime behind this – there isn’t any other way it could happen. And organised crime rarely limits itself to a Robin Hood style robbing from the rich (Hollywood) and giving to the poor (people who shop in the market). They may be scare stories that your pirate DVD purchases fund terrorists and they may not be. But there is still something nasty behind it.

So what am I trying to say? I started with the new Doctor Who. The impact of people downloading it will be negligible. It won’t impact viewing figures because we’re talking millions not hundreds (hopefully). It won’t impact DVD sales because the download will be far poorer quality than a TV broadcast so anyone not intending to buy the DVDs will tape (or DVD-R) it when it goes out on BBC1. Some may feel that seeing it first makes them better than everyone else but that has nothing to do with the subject under discussion. Music sales are up thanks, in some part at least, to people trying before they buy. The music industry’s hysteria can safely be ignored as they’ve been claiming they’re on the brink of extinction since the invention of the tape recorder sometime in the last century. I have absolutely no qualms about downloading or buying copies of things that could be released in this country but – for whatever reason – are not. If and when those things are released (assuming some effort goes into them as is generally the case with the Beeb) then I buy them. It isn’t a philosophy which makes me a saint but it’s one which I would hope most people would agree with. It’s how the internet ought to be – good natured sharing of resources so people can enjoy more of what they want to. No one need lose money, lose their temper, lose their livelihood or lose their liberty over it. Pirate DVDs are another matter – avoid those (a) because they’re shit and (b) because they’re nasty.