Breaking the law, breaking the law

I’ve been away for a few days, and in typical scatterbrained style forgot to set the video to record a programme I really, really wanted to see – so on my return I downloaded it from Bittorrent. That makes me a lawbreaker, but I’m not entirely sure why.

Let me rephrase that. I do understand why – copyright law – but I think the law is wrong. Had I remembered to set the video, I’d have recorded a programme that’s broadcast for free over the airwaves and watched it at a time that suited me; I’d also have skipped through the adverts. That’s perfectly legal. But because I downloaded it from Bittorrent so that I could watch it at a time that suited me, I’ve broken the law. What’s the difference? I haven’t deprived the broadcaster of any revenue, and I haven’t paid anyone for the download; while there’s an argument that free programming has an implied contract of “you get the programme for free if you watch the ads” I’d skip the ads whether the programme was on videotape or on my Mac’s hard disk.

The problem is that technology is accelerating but copyright owners’ attitudes remain rooted in the old way of doing things. It’s a problem that becomes more apparent when you consider my favourite TV programme, the US cop show NYPD Blue. Although Channel 4 has the rights to the programme it’s several years behind the US and doesn’t seem particularly keen to broadcast the remaining three series; the first two series (of 12) are available on DVD but the release of series 3 on DVD has been postponed indefinitely due to lack of demand. So the programme exists, but it’s unlikely to be broadcast here for a while (if at all), and it’s unlikely to appear on DVD.

Inevitably, the episodes Channel 4 doesn’t seem too keen to broadcast are available in their entirety, for free, on Bittorrent. So far I haven’t downloaded them, but the temptation is hard to resist. It is, of course, illegal – but if I download the episodes, who exactly am I hurting? The programme-makers have been paid, so I’m not depriving them of revenue; Fox, the network that owns the programme, isn’t going to release them on DVD as doing so isn’t viable; Channel 4 isn’t broadcasting the programmes, so I’m not depriving them of ad revenue… to my mind, while downloading the programmes is indeed illegal, it’s a victimless crime.

Rather than seeing such downloading as a problem, copyright owners should see it as an opportunity. The internet makes it possible to narrowcast rather than broadcast, so for example it would be cheap and easy to provide every episode of NYPD Blue ever recorded for download in exchange for a small fee. The copyright owner then makes money from something that otherwise would be sitting in a vault, gathering dust. Or it could be even simpler: lobby for some kind of flat tax on broadband connections and let the Bittorrent users swap to their heart’s content, with a royalty system to ensure that creators get paid for what gets swapped. That way the copyright owners make money without any expense whatsoever: the Bittorrent users provide the bandwidth and hosting, reducing the cost per download to zero. That would make the swapping of TV programmes a revenue stream rather than a threat.

Update, 18 February

Media Guardian covers a report about the epidemic of illegal TV downloading in the UK (free registration required). According to the firm behind the report, Envision:

“If TV companies were to offer episodes for download at a small cost at the same time as they air offline they could generate revenue in the same way that Apple’s iTunes does.”