Thursday, October 30, 2008


So I got in trouble with my ISP last night for, um, I suppose the legal term would be "theft."

Around 10 p.m., I noticed my internet wasn't working. So I ran through the usual steps, and nothing. I noticed one of the lights on the cable modem that's normally on wasn't on. I checked it out, and everything was green except the "link" light, which normally blinks amber if everything's aok. It was dark.

I check the router, because I don't really know what the "link" light means. My router has a new light on I've never seen before. So I check the router manual and it informs me that the new light means the ethernet connection is good, but there's no data.

I even try hooking the modem right to my computer, in case something's wrong with the router. Nada.

So I call my ISP. Of course the first thing I get from them is an automated recording that wants me to run through all the steps I've already done. Ten minutes of listening to the recording, and then I get a live person.

I tell the live person my situation. He clicks around for a while on his end, and finally tells me that "security" has suspended the internet service.

"Why would they do that?"

"I can't tell you specifically, but it's usually for downloading music or movies. Something like that."


Now, I should point out here that I'm not a heavy user of "shady" download sites or torrents or anything. But I have a pretty good idea what the guy was talking about. He givesme another number to call, and a reference number.

I call the new number, punch in the ref. number, and get another human right away. He confirms what the other guy told me, and provides details. A certain premium cable channel has flagged my I.P. address for sharing a torrent of a new vampire show.

I figure I'm in deep shit. But after a couple of questions, he tells me to make sure to get the file in question off my computer, and not to do it again, and he resets my account. The internet is working again.

First thing I do after hanging up is scour all the downloaded files (three of them, total) from my computer. Anything big that I download, like a tv show, is usually thrown away after a week or so anyway to stop my hard drive filling up.

Now, I've got a decision to make. I can continue downloading shows via torrent (the vampire show in question and a couple from a competing premium cable network) and just turn off uploading in my torrent client, which would effectively render me invisible to the network spies.

That's when they find you: when you upload a file from your computer back to the P2P service. The networks, and the record companies and software companies, log on to the same services, and search for files available for download. Once they start downloading, they can take a look at all the places the file is coming from. A WHOIS search on the IP address, and you're busted if yours is one of the computers offering the file in question.

So, I can just continue what I've been doing, except I can stop offering the files for upload after I get them. That's considered bad form in the torrent community, of course, because if no one offers files for upload, there will be no files for anyone to download.

Well, I just checked on one of many, many torrent sites, and the show in question doesn't seem to be any less available this week. If the cable network is trying to stop the downloads by notifying ISPs, it doesn't seem to be working. I don't know if the 10,000 or so people offering the file this week never got caught, or if they don't care, or if their ISPs chose not to act when the network contacted them.

Anyway, none of that really affects my decision. Whatever I decide, though, I won't be subscribing to the network in question, nor will I be buying the season DVDs when they come out. At most, I'll add them to my Netflix queue. Which means that, even if the networks have dissuaded me from downloading, they haven't made a single penny in additional revenue.

And that's the big issue, isn't it? And that's also the question. If the networks (and record and software companies) could completely eliminate illegal file sharing, would they realize increased revenue?

I don't think the networks would see a dime, honestly. Maybe there'd be enough increased demand for rental DVDs that they'd see some extra revenue there, but it would be slight at best. I doubt very seriously whether any of the people who are currently downloading these shows now would suddenly sign up for 20 bucks a month if they couldn't get the shows free. And buying the DVDs is generally for hardcore fans who want all the goodies like commentaries and deleted scenes and whatnot. The price point is just too high for casual fans (i.e. the kinds of fans who download the shows on the internet).

Record companies, I think, would probably see some improvement, especially from sales of digital downloads. I don't really know what the state of P2P music is these days. The RIAA has been especially aggressive in going after file sharers, that's for sure. I haven't downloaded music (with one exception I'll mention in a moment) from a P2P site in years. Even then, it was never more than a handful of songs.

The one time I've downloaded music lately wasn't even technically stealing. I was replacing a bunch of CDs I lost when I moved back to Kansas and my hard drive crashed. I'd already paid for them, only I didn't have the music anymore. Those CDs are still out there in the world somewhere, I was just replacing the digital copies I'd made of them way back when.

As for software, I'm utterly clueless. I've used pirated software before, but never downloaded it. A report indicates the industry lost $48 billion in 2007. How much of that was games, or office software or whatever, I don't know. I have a feeling eliminating piracy altogether wouldn't return anything close to $48 billion to software companies, but that's really just a guess.

All that said, do the companies in question have a right to protect their intellectual property? Absolutely. I am definitely not of the "information wants to be free" crowd. BUT ... and this applies especially to the networks, sometimes free ain't bad.

At worst, I think, the availability of television shows online for free helps build a fan base. The networks have largely realized this, and most network content is available online, either at the networks' own websites, or at aggregators like the amazing Hulu. Official online streaming does two things for television companies: it offers an alternative revenue source through ads placed within the streams (ads which, in most cases, are much shorter and less annoying than those on television). And it helps build fan loyalty. I've found a couple of shows streaming online that I now watch when they air on the networks.

In ten years, I think all of this will be well settled, at least from the music and tv show point of view. (I haven't even mentioned movies, but I think they pretty much follow and will continue to follow the tv model). By 2018, everything will be online, and all of it will be free, in one way or another. There's an entire generation of consumers who've grown up expecting to get what they want, when they want it, and how they want it, which is free. And yet the producers of this content will find a way to make money from it, either through embedded ads or some other revenue model no one's even dreamed of yet.

I think software piracy is here to stay, unfortunately. Unless someone comes up with an entirely new model of distribution and profit making, that is. Of course, it's entirely possible I'm missing something obvious here. Wouldn't be the first time.

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