This is a teen-written article from our friends at Youth Communication, a nonprofit organization that helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.
It was a Tuesday, which meant that we had missed the latest episode of 24. It had aired the night before, and most viewers had watched the hour-long program on Fox, sitting through 18 minutes of ads for skin care products, cars, and movies. My family was unwilling to sacrifice so much time to commercials. We had a better way to watch TV.
My mom and uncle sat on the couch behind me while I set up my laptop, connecting it to the TV and putting on the latest episode of 24 in HD with no ads. As I pulled up the show, my mom poured a glass of wine and watched me work.
“Where do you go to download TV shows and movies?” she asked me. Our golden retriever, Max, lay at my uncle’s feet. My uncle is relatively Internet savvy, thanks to his college-age daughters. As he scratched Max’s ears he turned to me and said, “BitTorrent, right?”
“Can you show me how it works?” my mom asked.
When she has computer trouble or questions, I usually teach her whatever she needs to know so she can do it for herself later. The difference this time was that she was asking me to show her how to break the law.
A Bit Illegal
BitTorrent is the new Napster—a method of quickly and stealthily obtaining copyrighted music, movies, games, and software for free. It’s a type of file sharing that allows users to download files from multiple computers anywhere in the world.
Say you want to download a movie. You would go to what’s called a “torrent tracker” website and use a BitTorrent program to search through thousands of other computers to find the movie. When you start “torrenting” a specific movie, multiple computers that have the file send you thousands of tiny pieces of the movie simultaneously. In an hour or so, your computer has automatically put it all together and you’re ready to watch the movie.
However, using BitTorrent to download copyrighted material is illegal because, technically, it’s the same as stealing. The same way you wouldn’t be allowed to use, lend out, or sell your neighbor’s car, copyright laws don’t allow songs, TV shows, movies, and other artistic creations to be copied or sold by anyone other than the owner.
The companies that create and own music, TV shows, and movies argue that illegally downloading a file—as opposed to buying the CD or DVD—harms them because their sales go down and they lose profits. They also argue it makes it hard for the actors, artists, and writers they represent to make a living.
Pirating on Principle
In spite of copyright laws, hundreds of thousands of people use BitTorrent every day. I am one of those people. It’s a convenient and free way to get the movies and music I want and, I think, it’s good politics.
I believe corporations shouldn’t be able to profit from someone else’s creativity. In my ideal world, there would be no corporate copyrights and these materials would be free in the first place. Art would not be a way of making money; its only “point” would be to allow people to experience another person’s perspective and use it to grow. Every song in existence would be available to everyone legally via the Internet, and money would be out of the equation.
But in the real world, it’s not that simple. BitTorrent threatens profits and raises legal questions about ownership. And it has ignited passions among both consumers and producers of entertainment.
Some artists and filmmakers have embraced the technology. Like me, they like the ideal of free art for everyone, and relish bypassing the corporate middlemen—record labels and movie studios. Even so, they haven’t figured out how they can make money this way.
For example, in 2007, the band Radiohead opted to put up their new album, "In Rainbows," on their website with a price tag users can set themselves. Thom Yorke, the frontman for Radiohead, told Time magazine, “I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘F-ck you’ to this decaying business model.”
Even though Radiohead was widely applauded by anti-copyright activists for this endeavor, most people chose to pay nothing to download the album. Similarly, Nine Inch Nails put some content directly onto BitTorrent, calling it “a revolutionary digital distribution method, and we believe in finding ways to utilize new technologies instead of fighting them.”
Arrgh, Ye Be Sued
Meanwhile, big movie studios and record labels are fighting hard to take down BitTorrent sites and users. In one case that made headlines in 2009, a Minnesota woman was fined $1.9 million for downloading 24 songs. The recording industry has initiated a lot of huge trials like this in the hope that making an example of a few people will discourage the masses from pirating copyrighted content.
The entertainment industry also tries to take down the torrent tracker websites, where users go to find material to download. The biggest and most famous torrent tracker is The Pirate Bay, a Swedish website. ThePirateBay.org’s four founders were found guilty of breaking copyright law in 2009 and sentenced to jail and fined $3.6 million. The founders are appealing their sentences; none of them have gone to prison yet.
Meanwhile, an anti-piracy group intent on shutting down The Pirate Bay is taking a different tack: They're suing individual ISPs (Internet Service Providers), saying that the ISPs must block The Pirate Bay website, so Pirate Bay users simply can't access the bit-torrent service. That lawsuit is also ongoing.
The Pirate Bay is still online, though many other torrent tracker sites have been shut down after being threatened or sued.
A Scary Text
Personally, I looked at piracy lawsuits as the kind of thing I would never experience firsthand, but recently my friend John sent me a scary text.
“I just got a letter stating that companies have complained about me transmitting copyrighted material and legal action may follow. What now?” the message read.
I had no idea what to tell him. Paramount had caught him downloading The Soloist, and if they decided to pursue him in court, he could face a massive fine. I carefully crafted a short message back to my friend: “DELETE EVERYTHING!”
It’s frightening stories like this that convinced my dad that downloading through BitTorrent is unsafe. After I taught my mom to use BitTorrent, she had been downloading TV shows. But my dad discouraged my mom from using it for fear that they might get caught and end up losing their teaching jobs. After she retired from her life as a pirate, she started using iTunes to download her shows legally for $1.99 per episode.
Way of the Future
The entertainment industry may have scared off my mom, but I still pirate every day and so do my friends. The popularity of BitTorrent is growing and I believe the entertainment industry is fighting a losing battle.
File sharing may be demonized now, but many technologies we consider harmless were also criticized at first. At the time radio was invented, most music sales were made in the form of records. Here was this invention that would make music free to anyone who owned a radio. Eventually, the record companies realized that fighting the invention was impossible, and they had to cooperate with the radio stations to find a new way to make money: ads.
I think eventually BitTorrent will follow the same path and become as familiar to Americans as TV is now. How this will work out legally is beyond me, but there’s no way that this extremely efficient file sharing method can be ignored.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright by Youth Communication/New York Center, Inc. See www.youthcomm.org for information regarding reprints of Youth Communication's copyrighted stories.
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