Sunday, July 24, 2005

Confessions of a reluctant criminal

I don't watch much TV, but I'm intensely loyal to what I do watch. This past season, Fox-broadcast, Universal-produced House was more than appointment television for me, it was television I wanted to watch and rewatch. The show is broadcast locally on Global, which comes magically to my television set for free, but Fox is a beneficiary of the basic cable fee I voluntarily pay for the bonus of having clear picture quality and more channels I don't watch. Except when I've been out of town, I have watched all the episodes as they were broadcast. I tape them in case I'm not going to be home, or need to rewind to catch a line of the witty dialogue I've missed (yes, I said “need”). I have the first season DVD on pre-order from Amazon. There is no additional method for Fox and Universal to get House money out of me, unless I give them a direct pipeline into my bank account. And if they got Hugh Laurie or David Shore to ask, I'd probably do that, too.

So I feel almost guilt-free in admitting that I have (gasp) downloaded all the episodes from BitTorrent, too. Almost. Why do I do this, given the variety of opportunities I've given myself to watch my favourite show? Because I live in the land of no TiVo, don't own a DVD recorder, but want to save and rewatch the episodes in a less fragile and more convenient form than tape until the DVD box sets are released.

But guilt remains, because I know the powers that be hate me for this. Well, not me specifically – I'm not even a speck on their windshield – but the idea of me. Because I'm the annoying voice asking “where's the harm” and distracting from the very salient question of who should control distribution to copyrighted material. The guilt remains because I know the clear answer, current Canadian legal loophole or not, is and should be “the copyright holder.” I'm talking about my desire to rewatch a beloved television show, so I can't plead a sad story that they're forcing me to break the law to put bread on my table.

So yes, I'm going to buy a DVD recorder. But I don't think that's really the point. Is that what the lawsuits against peer-to-peer networks and illegal downloaders are about? Networks forcing consumers to buy personal video recorders or DVD recorders? No, of course not. They've challenged every technology, every step of the way, that would make it possible for viewers to do anything but sit in front of their televisions at the network-appointed time to watch their favourite shows. They challenged the viewer's right to record shows with VCRs, they've challenged TiVo, just as they're challenging the makers of peer-to-peer software, even though those programs can also be used for legal file transfers.

But viewers' habits are not just changing, they have changed. Simple methods – many of them legal – have existed for years for people to watch programs when they want to watch them, not when the networks dictate. The illegal methods take away the copyright holders' rightful place as the source, but in fighting those methods, they are fighting their own consumers, too – the people who watch the show as broadcast, and record it, and buy or rent the DVDs. Lawsuits will do little to change already ingrained habits, when the practical difference between legal and illegal methods seems trivial.

Offering a legal means of electronic distribution could put the control back where it belongs, and focus the copyright owners' fight on those who seek to profit from their creations.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)


“The right to do something does not mean that doing it is right.”
- William Safire