I'm surrounded by thieves.
One is a respected Canadian broadcaster who uses a popular VPN service to jack into the U.S. version of Netflix so his kids can watch shows that aren't legally available here. Another is a theatre critic who doesn't have cable and is aghast at the idea of handing over more than $100 a month to Rogers Cable just so he can watch Game of Thrones on HBO Canada: Like millions around the world who have made that show the most popular one to pirate, he'd rather just download it from a torrent site.
Then there's the newspaper editor who loved Downton Abbey so much that, last January, after Season 4 began airing on Masterpiece Theatre in the United States, she hopped on over to Pirate Bay to binge on the new episodes rather than waiting another five months for them to show up on Vision TV here in Canada.
All of them make their living from the content-creation economy. And yet they all think it's fine to steal content that somebody else created.
I realize that, in trying to plead for people to respect intellectual property, I come off as antediluvian. (I also realize that, in using words like antediluvian, I come off as antediluvian.) I long ago gave up hope that I could convince my teenaged nephew and niece that it's wrong to download movies still in theatres; indeed, I seem to have lost the battle with their parents, too. So they and I have simply come to a modern sort of armistice: During family get-togethers, they won't mention the awesome new movies they've just watched (at home! on their large screen TV!) and I won't flop around in childish moral outrage while everyone is enjoying the canapés.
Perhaps, I tell myself, they know not what they do.
Maybe they don't realize how much harder it's gotten for filmmakers to get movies funded, for musicians to make a buck, for writers to pay the rent – in part because otherwise law-abiding citizens think it's fine to rip off their neighbours.
But the same can't be said for the documentary filmmaker I talked with this week: After remaining virtuous for years, he admitted that he too had recently started watching a few movies through the magic of torrent, or even on YouTube before the copyright holder has gotten around to having them removed.
The change, he said, came after seeing his income from TV licence fees and DVD sales of his old films fall off a cliff. "I felt like I was getting screwed both ways: I wasn't getting paid much for my work any more, and I was the only one I knew who seemed to be paying for content," he explained, flashing puppy-dog eyes. "After a while, it was like that Nora Ephron quote: I felt like I was the wallflower at the orgy."
We all have our justifications. "I don't care about ripping off large corporations," one columnist (who works for a medium-sized corporation) told me this week, echoing the heady early-Napster era, when many of us saw ourselves as ragtag revolutionaries storming the music-industry Bastille. At the time, we thought we were striking a blow for the musicians stuck under the record labels' controlling thumbs. Of course, most of my musician friends nowadays would love a contract with a big, suffocating record label.
Some don't even realize they're stealing. I've lost count of the number of people I know who subscribe to Netflix here in Canada just so they can use a VPN to access content that's only available to the service's U.S. or U.K. customers. "I pay my eight bucks," they say defensively, as if that's all that matters.
It's not, of course: Paying for the Canadian service means your money goes to whoever holds the Canadian rights for the shows on Netflix. If you're watching the U.S. service, the rights holders – that is, those who pay the creators to make the shows you're actually watching – aren't getting their fair share. That means they're less likely to help get the next round of shows or movies green-lighted, making it harder for artists to get their projects off the ground.
That broadcaster I talked to defended his actions by noting he spends a lot of money on content – especially Canadian content.
"This sounds like a cop-out, but I buy a hell of a lot of books, magazines, records. I pay for music subscriptions. I don't download music illegally. I subscribe to newspapers," he said. "I go and see films that people aren't otherwise going to go and see. So I'd like to think, in the grand scheme of things, it all balances out."
In a world where some people don't pay for any content, that's a laudable pose. But morality shouldn't be relative. As one of my colleagues noted, it's a little like saying you spend so much money at the grocery store that it's totally cool to shoplift from time to time.
"Yeah, I'm a hypocrite," said that Downton Abbey fan. "It's crazy. I even pay for Vision TV as part of my cable package. But I don't want to wait to see the show."
One photographer I spoke to regularly downloads True Blood. He doesn't have cable, and isn't about to get it just for that one show. Still, like many others I spoke to, he says that if he could buy it on an à la carte basis, he'd probably do so.
"I find it frustrating that there aren't more legitimate paths. I feel bad," he sighed. "But maybe not bad enough."