Let's be honest for a second: most of us have illegally downloaded something in our lives. Maybe it was a song, some software, a game, or a movie. For a period I pirated everything I could. As technology pushed forward, it became less necessary, and now I don't even bother. Here's why.
Piracy affects pretty much every part of the entertainment industry from big corporations to independent creators. While pirating isn't always immoral (many people argue it's not a problem downloading a flick if you own a legal copy of it, for instance), it is illegal. While many pirates buy more, that doesn't mean they buy everything they pirate -- and that hurts the industry, particularly when you're talking about independent creators. That didn't particularly matter to me, though, until I realised that it was easier for me to legally buy media than it was to pirate. Here's how I flipped the switch and why I started paying.
Why I Pirated To Begin With
The bulk of my pirating happened in the mid to late-2000s, during that awkward period when media companies were fighting the inevitable internet download ecosystem, and prices for digital versions were often higher than the boxed equivalents. It was a time when no one was really doing digital correctly, when experiments were happening everywhere, and when sites and stores were popping up (and being shut down) repeatedly. Essentially, if you wanted to go digital, nobody was making it easy for you.
Digital Was Confusing And Expensive
There was a point not that long ago when you couldn't rent a movie online and watch it on a TV, no matter where you lived in the world. In order to buy software you had to go through a tricky payment service and dump your credit card info on a dozen sites.
In short, you had to jump through a lot of hoops (and you still do to some extent). Some of those hoops left your data out in the open with brand new companies that had no track record for security. Others were almost just as risky. If you wanted to download software or games, you had to do it on the faith it would actually run because nobody offered refunds. So, I'd pirate a game or software, see if it worked on my ageing computer, and then never actually buy it. All I really needed to circumvent that was a good return policy from a credible store or a solid demo.
The same went for music. 98 per cent of my music piracy was just downloading copies of what I already owned on vinyl. Before download codes were included with records, you had to purchase an album twice if you wanted to listen to it on the go. As a (former) wannabe audiophile with a love for vinyl, this didn't fall within my tiny budget.
Basically, the lack of a consistent shopping ecosystem or any type of trial service made digital downloads a risk. Sure, shareware, demos and 30 second samples existed, but they were rarely helpful. It was just easier to pirate something than it was to get it legitimately.
Nobody Provided A Good Customer Experience
When digital downloads first started to catch on, media companies were quick to test out many varieties of digital rights management (DRM(. A lot of this DRM put absurd restrictions on the devices you could use, or worse, locked it onto one specific piece of hardware or software. This meant if you wanted to jump between devices, your content was stuck on old hardware. It wasn't (and still isn't) a good practice. Some of the bigger companies, like Apple, didn't ditch DRM until 2009, and that was just for music. Most places still have DRM on movies and TV shows. This was a culture shock to those of us who were used to having physical copies of media we could play on virtually any device.
Worse was the fact that even digitising your physical media was illegal in some cases. It's still not legal to rip a DVD you own, which means if you want a legal digital copy of Indiana Jones you're out of luck. It's 2013. That's absurd.
The other problem was the basic usability of anything you downloaded. Nobody wanted to watch movies on their computer, but with strict DRM everything was stuck there. Until set top boxes came along, the very idea of downloading and watching a movie wasn't a pleasant experience. It was a lot easier to just pirate something and use a media centre to watch movies or TV shows. Photo by David Chartier.
Why I Stopped Pirating And Went Legit
I'm not going to get on a soapbox and scream about taking the moral high ground to stop pirating. In fact, the main reason I stopped pirating is that these days, piracy takes too many steps. It's now a better experience to download something from a legitimate source than it is to pirate it. In fact, I hardly even noticed that I'd stopped pirating -- it just kind of happened.
I Stopped Needing Everything Immediately
In 2013 you can buy digital copies of pretty much everything you want from reputable sellers the same day it's available in stores (in some cases, you can even do it before it's available in stores). Better still, if you wait a little while you can get them cheaply. Amazon, Google, Steam and Apple routinely have massive sales on everything they sell. Don't want to pay $60 for a game? Wait a few months. You can even read old Marvel comics through an inexpensive subscription service these days. It's the same discount system that works in chain stores, but it took a surprisingly long time to come to digital.
If you end up spending any amount of time getting your content delivered to you, you're wasting time that's better spent elsewhere. With the ecosystem we have now, it's a lot easier to stream or download legitimately than it is to pirate.
Media And Software Companies Made Everything Easier
It might have taken media companies a lot longer than it should have, but it's now incredibly easy to download anything you want, to any device, for a reasonable cost. These downloads sync across accounts (and more often than not, devices as well) so they're accessible everywhere. They have interfaces that are easy to understand and easy to use. Basically, it's finally easier to download something legally than it is to pirate it. I'm not outfitted with some crazy tech-y setup. All I have is a computer, a smartphone, a tablet, and some game consoles attached to my TV. With that, I have access to every medium I could possibly want:
- Music: Streaming services like Spotify and Rdio make it easy to sample albums for free. Then, stores like iTunes and Big Pond Music make it simple to purchase and download anything I decide I want offline (although I rarely bother anymore). As well, sites like Bandcamp mean I can pay a band directly for an album if I don't feel like supporting a record label.
- Movies: Movie companies haven't quite caught up to the rest of the industry with their services and they still have restrictive DRM on just about everything. If you buy a video on iTunes, it's only playable on certain devices. However, I realised I rarely watch movies more than a couple times, so it's cheaper -- and quicker -- to just rent or stream them than to download a permanent copy that sits on my hard drive. Choices in Australia don't match what the US has, but between iTunes, Quickflix, Big Pond Movies and Fetch, there are possibilities. For me, renting is the new buying. I know some people still want a big library of movies, but for many of us that just isn't as necessary as it once was. Renting it is cheaper unless you manage to watch it at least five times (which I rarely do anymore, save for a few of my favourites that I own).
- Software and Games: With Steam, Xbox Live or PSN I can download almost any game I want right away. Likewise, with software stores such as the Mac App Store or Steam, it's easier to pay for software than it is to pirate it. For everything else, getting discounts is incredibly easy.
Yes, some game companies (ahem, EA) are notorious for messing with DRM to the point where their games become unplayable. My solution? Don't buy from that company. Sorry, SimCity, but I'm not going to play you. That's a loss I'm willing to take. But pirating is certainly another way to send a message.
- Books: With any ereader you get a dedicated ebook store. With something like a Kindle, everything you purchase is synced across all your devices. You can't do that with a pirated book. My favourite innovation is that you can download a preview of a book to see if you even like it before you purchase it. The one problem here is that ebooks can suddenly disappear. When you don't own a physical copy it might happen to one of your purchases at any time. That's worrisome, but thankfully stripping the DRM from ebooks is incredibly easy.
Piracy Wasn't Cost-Effective
Piracy is no longer free for most of us. If you use Usenet, you're generally paying $5 a month or more for access. With BitTorrent, these days, you absolutely have to have a VPN or proxy to avoid potential copyright busts. From there, you have to find what you're looking for, download it, piece together the download, and cross your fingers it's not a dud. Even setting up an automation service takes time (and remember, time is a "cost" too).
So, if you're getting music from Spotify for free (or $6.99 a month to cut the ads), and you're paying $14.99 a month for Quickflix, you're not saving that much money by torrenting unless you watch a lot a movies. Granted, no direct equivalents for software or games exist, but in time we may see new options. Books you can always snag from the library for free. If you consume media as I do, the legal services actually end up being about the same price with half the headache.
Of course, companies still do incredibly stupid things that end up accidently promoting piracy. DRM is still frustrating as hell, and it certainly took a while to break my habit of needing to own everything. But I'm happy I did. I have less clutter in my house, and less junk I'll never read, watch, play or listen to.