Tales of True Crime

I committed a crime today.

I copied a program from my DVR to a DVD. Later I’ll rip the video and put it on my hard drive. Would that be two offenses or just an extension of the first?

Anyway, I’m sure many people would say that what I’ve done is not an illegal act. After all, the copy is for my personal use and I have no intention of selling or giving the recording to anyone. Wasn’t that issue settled by the courts decades ago?

Besides, in my defense, I did try to buy the show. I checked the store section of the network’s web site, as well as Amazon, iTunes and a variety of other outlets for this kind of material.

I even wrote the network, asking if they were planning on offering the program in the future. The only response was a form message thanking me for my interest in their products and saying the title “was not on our release schedule”.

Although I certainly don’t believe what I’ve done is a crime, I suspect the MPAA (and maybe the copyright owners) would disagree with my logic. Those lobbying groups for the video and music industries are working hard to stop anyone from using media in any way except the way they prescribe. Want that disk on your iPad? Pay us again.

However, beyond all that, my flirting with criminal activity is one small example of how the content owners have caused many of their own problems in the digital age, screaming to anyone who will listen (usually the people they’ve bribed) about the billions they’re losing from piracy.*

In an age when many networks are promoting the digital version during the program (“Download tonight’s episode on iTunes!”), and digital distribution costs a fraction of what’s being charged, it’s hard to understand why this particular program isn’t available, now weeks after it’s initial broadcast.

Now, I’m not one of those who feels a “smug sense of entitlement” to illegally download anything ever produced. Like the vast majority of consumers, I’m only asking for access to media when and where I want for a fair price.

In many ways, the convoluted and antiquated business models of the media distributors are cultivating the piracy proclivity in their customers.


*A claim that’s been challenged multiple times, including this good analysis.

An Alternative to Org Charts

For those of you not into geek culture, you may not be aware that the trial of the century is now going on in Sweden.

The big content companies are trying to shut down a site called The Pirate Bay (that link is not likely to work at school), which is basically nothing more than a big database that directs users to bit torrent files all over the world.

The court, however, is having a hard time comprehending the people running the site and it’s no wonder with this kind of business process.

The prosecution’s mind is blown by the chaotic, free-wheeling way TPB is run as they try to divine who’s really in charge : “Someone must ultimately decide whether to put up a certain text or graphic.” TPB’s Fredrik Neij replies, “Why? If someone believes a new text is needed, he just inputs it. Or if a graphic is ugly, someone makes a better one. The one who wants to do something just does it.”

Pretty much the opposite of bureaucracy.

Stealing the Books

Look around the web and you can find plenty of pirated music. Movies, too. Textbooks?

It seems some students who are angry at the high cost of books are scanning the material in their texts and posting it online for others to download.

Compared with music publishers, textbook publishers have been relatively protected from piracy by the considerable trouble entailed in digitizing a printed textbook. Converting the roughly 1,300 pages of “Organic Chemistry” into a digital file requires much more time than ripping a CD.

Time flies, however, if you’re having a good time plotting righteous revenge, and students seem angrier than ever before about the price of textbooks. More students are choosing used books over new; sales of a new edition plunge as soon as used copies are available, in the semester following introduction; and publishers raise prices and shorten intervals between revisions to try to recoup the loss of revenue – and the demand for used books goes up all the more.

At more than $200 for a new copy of the organic chem book (starting at $110 for a used copy), I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the publishers.

Selling an electronic version wrapped in DRM for half price doesn’t seem much better.

I remember paying a similar high price for my college calculus book. Although to be fair, it could also double as a booster seat. :-)

But I wonder. Is the content of one text for a basic college course really that much different than another? I know there are very few differences between most high school books.

Sounds like a good application for open source.