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Stealing Entertainment, Revisited

This article was written by in Consumer. 18 comments.


A week ago I wrote a post called “Is it Ever Okay to Steal Entertainment?”, which produced great comments from our readers, many of whom were clearly incensed that I would ever try to rationalize stealing from content creators. I’ve been thinking about the criticism and understanding that was added to the original article. I wanted to see if I could ever become the person that never even accidentally steals entertainment.

I got the impression from your comments, and correct me if I’m wrong, but a lot of people feel that if I’m enjoying any kind of entertainment, then I should have paid for it first.

The problem, I’ve concluded, is that we all steal. All of us. Not always on purpose, but it happens. Some examples:

The Problem with Having Friends

Your friends want you to enjoy the things they enjoy. I really enjoy the band “Cake”, and I never would’ve been exposed to them if someone hadn’t burned me a copy of “Fashion Nugget” back in 2001. Now, over eight years after that, I still haven’t paid for that album, but I enjoy at least one of those songs at least once a month. I’m willing to admit right here that I “stole” that album. And as a direct result, I paid for three other albums of theirs. So the band “Cake” was down one, then up three. “Cake” profits.

This is true of most of the bands that my friends share with me. Friends know best what you’re likely to enjoy.

The DVR Problem

I don’t think there’s any Cable/Satellite/FiOS TV provider that doesn’t offer a DVR box for their customers. Unless you’re watching a Superbowl-type event, or keeping tabs on a weather event or election, you’re probably skipping commercials. That’s stealing: it breaks the model of “we’ll make shows, you pay us, and we’ll insert ads for your product, and there’s an infinitesimal chance our viewers will buy your product over someone else’s”.

If you have a DVR, and you’re decidedly not skipping commercials out of a noble effort to continue this outdated model, then my hat’s off to you, and also, I don’t believe it.

Not to mention the fact that most of the time, the volume of commercials during the break is set so loud that I feel I’m being screamed at.

The “Album Only” Problem

The list of albums that I can listen to all the way through is about half a page long, double-spaced. Nearly every album contains filler material: stuff that the artists know most people won’t like. For about thirty years, record companies sold single songs, with B-sides, and they did very well. The popularity of the CD somehow brought about a trend for people to buy whole albums.

I bought plenty of albums on CD, and have been disappointed with plenty of songs. That’s not an accident, that’s the record company stealing from me. I’m not saying “two wrongs make a right”. I’m just pointing it out. Apple and the record companies know that people much prefer buying single songs, and not wasting money, so they’re working on a new add-on for people who buy whole albums. We’ll see how that turns out, but at present, I predict it will be a miserable failure.

Entertainment in the 21st Century

I much prefer the Creative Commons approach to releasing entertainment. Since Day One, Jonathan Coulton has made it possible and easy to enjoy his music for free. Just as importantly, he’s made it possible and easy to pay him for the songs you like. His music makes me so happy that I’ve paid for the MP3s, as well as a collector’s set of “Thing a Week” CDs, a DVD, and tickets for three concerts.

I know the system works for him, too, since he recently moved into a bigger house with his wife and children.

A Larger View

I think we’re in between payment models at the moment. I’m seeing a 21st century where people only pay for the things they enjoy. My wife and I are already working on a computer-based system, using content from places like Hulu (which includes ads that you can’t skip, but only a couple minutes’ worth), and I’m looking forward to reporting on it, if I can get the bugs all worked out.

Published or updated July 27, 2009. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Smithee formerly lived primarily on credit cards and the good will of his friends. He is a newbie to personal finance but quickly learning from his past mistakes. You can follow him on Twitter, where his user name is @SmitheeConsumer. View all articles by .

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Rob

Regarding the “Friends” issue, this goes all the way back to cassette tapes, when people started to have the ability to easily make a copy of an album. “Fair Use” allows one to make a copy of an album and give it to a friend. It does not allow one to make a copy of an album and host it on a website for thousands of strangers, but you are specifically allowed to make a copy and gift it to a specific, individual that you have an established relationship with. If I recall correctly, this has been backed up in court. IANAL, so I don’t know which case to cite or anything like that, and I could be wrong, but this is my understanding.

You have a legal copy of the Cake album; you don’t need to pay for it, and you don’t need to feel guilty for owning it.

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avatar Tom Dziubek

I hate to say it but I think many people who have supposed high ethics about NOT stealing entertainment are hypocrites. Not all, but a good deal more that are willing to let on.

There are two items that were not mentioned and which may amongst the biggest thefts of all: software and wi-fi signals. I can almost guarantee that the vast majority of people out there either have some form of pirated software on their PC or have inquired about getting it. More than likely it’s a high ticket item like Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop. And, believe it or not, using someone’s wi-fi signal without their consent is illegal. There was a man in Michigan who, in 2007, was fined $400 for sitting outside of a coffee shop in his car (sans coffee), surfing the net on his laptop. Not to keep plugging my old Wall Street Journal podcasts, but Paul Herrmann and I discussed this last September (it’s about 9:35 in, http://podcast.mktw.net/wsj/audio/20080926/pod-wsjtechpm/pod-wsjtechpm.mp3 ). And I’m fairly certain that just about all laptop owners reading this post has, at one time or another, jumped on an another wi-fi network without consent or have at least *attempted* to. Usually it’s for purely innocent reasons…you don’t want to hack into someone’s computer, you’re not trying to dodge a monthly internet access bill by riding your neighbor’s network…you just want to surf the net. And those infrequent occasions usually happen while on vacation, at a friend’s house (who doesn’t have a wireless router), maybe while at the car dealership getting your car worked on, etc…

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avatar mapgirl

I thought about this for a long time. There is a paradigm shift going on with property/use rights and ownership. It’s sort of like the Native Americans and the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims thought the Native Americans were giving them the land to keep permanently (property rights), when in reality the Native Americans were only giving them rights to use the land (use rights) and thought that no one owned the land. When those ideas conflicted, well, American history ensued.

Much the same is happening now with content and intellectual property. There is a clash of the old way vs the new way or de facto way. I don’t know who is right or wrong. I support artists to make a living from their creations since many of my friends are artists. I purchase their work when I can. But I know I have burned copies of CD’s more than once to try and turn on a friend to music I really enjoy. Whence do we cross the line into criminality is more the question. Is stealing some content ok or tolerable under ‘fair use’? Do artists devalue their content by making some of it free? Do they devalue the content of other people who cannot afford to give it away? Perhaps.

Each person has to decide their own personal ethics here. While I don’t bother with file-sharing networks, I will gladly watch a movie at a friend’s house without asking if they pulled it off of Pirate Bay or not. I think everyone would. But what if your host offered you cocaine? What would you do then? At the heart of this is that someone has illegal possession of something and invites you to use it. That sounds like the same thing, but I think lots of people would argue that a movie and drugs are not the same.

Nice exercise of situational ethics.

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avatar Kevin L.

I didn’t have time to read the original post, so this may have been addressed in that message. However, after reviewing your current message, I wonder about public libraries. The artists and writers of the media available for free in libraries never receive compensation from each individual enjoying their product. Are the same people condemning you also eschewing their local libraries because that would be “theft?”
Personally, a public library system is a real driver for a community. I’ll just keep right on using it.

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avatar Ron@TheWisdomJournal

The sooner companies realize that we’re entering a different economy, a “sharing” economy, the sooner they will develop a model to profit from it rather than trying to sue a homemaker for dollars she doesn’t have (and never will).

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avatar UH2L

With regard to the CAKE story, (a band that I also really like), this is where the record companies overstate lost revenues. You would have never bought that CAKE CD on your own so the record company behind the band didn’t lose any potential revenue when your friend made you a copy. And in fact, I have bought many CD’s from bands only after I received a free copy from a friend and ended up liking them.

As for only buying one song out of an album, the listener misses out on songs that she/he might like better than the ones that she/he already knows. I’ve found some of my favorite songs this way.

I don’t download music at all, hate MP3′s because the sound quality is not the same as on a CD. So I buy mostly used CD’s and transfer what I like to my MP3 player. Cheaper, better sound quality, and easier to experiment with new artists.

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avatar Kevin

“I bought plenty of albums on CD, and have been disappointed with plenty of songs. That’s not an accident, that’s the record company stealing from me.”

If every time someone didn’t like a movie/song/service they purchased, they got to take action on that belief, the monetary system would reduce to chaos. The movie industry alone would owe me a thousand dollars for all the chick flicks my wife has made me sit through.

This isn’t as hard as most people make it seem. If when you do something you get a tickle telling you it may be wrong, and you then rationalize it somehow, and do it anyway, you are wrong.

It doesn’t matter if it is technically illegal yet. You know when you are infringing on someone’s intellectual rights.

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avatar DD

So if everyone jumped off a bridge you would too? :P

A lot of people say that illegal music turned them on to music they wouldn’t normally buy. That may be the case for a few, but with downloads soaring and sales plummeting, I’d say most people don’t operate that way.

As for the DVR issue, unless you’re stealing your cable/dish service, I don’t think it’s a problem to skip the commercials. Although I say that as an analog holdout (yes, there are a few of us left) so I can’t skip the commercials. But if I was paying what some of you pay to watch TV, I doubt I’d feel like a thief doing so.

Thanks for the interesting discussion.
**SPLASH**
That sound you hear is me jumping off the bridge.

P.S. NPR’s Morning Edition had a couple of interesting stories on the entertainment industry this morning that sorta relate to this discussion. Check them out:

Hollywood is struggling — http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111145929
Hulu — http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111145937

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avatar Jim

“I got the impression from your comments, and correct me if I’m wrong, but a lot of people feel that if I’m enjoying any kind of entertainment, then I should have paid for it first.”

Wrong as far as I’m concerned. There are many ways to get entertainment without directly paying financially for it. There is nothing wrong with those methods.

The problem is when you are crossing the line of breaking actual laws. Making unathorized copies of something or downloading pirate versions is explicitly illegal.

There is nothing explicitly illegal about not watching commercials via a DVR or otherwise. That is not stealing and is not breaking a law. Its no different than flipping to another radio station when the ads come on.

I understand your preference to have an album full of good songs or your preference for creative commons. Those preferences have nothing to do with the laws.

Break law = not ok. Simple as that.

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avatar Jim

@ Rob, ““Fair Use” allows one to make a copy of an album and give it to a friend.”

No thats not allowed under the legal definition of “fair use”.

“fair use” means you can quote something or refer to it, use it in parody, Its not a license to give a free copy of the entire work to a buddy.

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avatar UH2L

Most of us break the law every day when we drive faster than the speed limit. Whether it’s1 mph or 10 mph over, it’s technically still breaking the law. Betting on an NCAA basketball pool is illegal in most places too.

These entertainment for free issues are not so black and white. What I do know though is that if people don’t pay for any entertainment, then there is less incentive for artists to create new material. Even if you download songs for free, you should try to buy some occasionally to keep the industry going.

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avatar Madame X

I’m surprised no one has mentioned the book FREE by Chris Anderson. He gets into a lot of these issues. (My review here) As mapgirl says, there is such a paradigm shift happening about paying/ not paying for intellectual property, for better or for worse…

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avatar John

The Problem with Having Friends
I am one of those people. I give away music to other that i think they will enjoy. It is the reason i found some bands i love. It is the reason i’ve been to almost 200 concerts. It is the reason i buy EPs and Mix albums. My music consumption before downloading was the radio (or internet radio) and over the last 3 years i’ve spent more on media than rent. I no longer download everything i can (i can’t afford it – as downloads increase purchases increase)

The DVR Problem
When Dish Network put out its original DVR it had the feature to skip commercials. Push a button and the box got back to your show. No fast-forwarding. Dish Net got sued and almost went bankrupt because of this feature. Skipping commercials is illegal. Fast-forwarding commercials is not.

The “Album Only” Problem
The problem i see is more when only two or three songs are good. Spending $12 for an album with 15 track and 12 good ones is $1/good track. Spending $12 for an album with 15 tracks and only has 3 good ones is $4/per good track. That is the rip off. The latter was becoming more common so people did not want whole albums. Every track from Metallica’s albums through the black album still get air play because they are good. Load/Reload combined have 5 good tracks. Even within a band album only can be a problem.

Entertainment in the 21st Century / A Larger View
Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) recently published an article about this concept and what to do for new bands. He gives away an album like Ghosts I or The Slip and still sells enough copies for it to hit the Billboard charts. If something is good people are willing to buy the whole album. The media industries are changing. “Adapt or die”

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avatar John

Try to justify it to yourself ethically all you want. The courts won’t agree with you.

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avatar Tyler Karasewski

Who cares if the courts agree with you — your chances of ever actually ending up in court are astronomically small. The only reason to pay for things that can be downloaded is to avoid making yourself feel bad about *not* paying otherwise. I’m far more likely to be killed in a car accident than sued for downloading something illegally, but I haven’t given up driving yet, because I don’t feel bad for doing it.

I couldn’t care less about the letter of the law if it’s unenforced 99%+ of the time, and it’s generally accepted that no one really cares very much if you break it.

Is that fair? maybe not, but people aren’t going to pay for things they could get for free just because they feel bad for poor old Britney Spears, who’s obviously been dealt such a harsh deal in life with the lack of royalty checks she receives.

It’s all a numbers game — the record companies are betting on being able to scare enough people into buying music that it justifies the cost of their scare tactics, and individuals are betting on the low odds of getting caught. It’s pure risk assessment, and the entertainment industry is losing.

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avatar Jim

John: “When Dish Network put out its original DVR it had the feature to skip commercials. Push a button and the box got back to your show. No fast-forwarding. Dish Net got sued and almost went bankrupt because of this feature. Skipping commercials is illegal. Fast-forwarding commercials is not.”

I can’t find any record of DISH being sued over commercial skipping on DVRs. DISH has been sued a lot by Tivo for patent infringement which is entirely different.

I think you might mean ReplayTV. They were sued for commercial skipping and later went bankrupt. The case was never settled though due to the bankruptcy. ReplayTV was later bought by DirectTV.

Skipping commercials is not illegal.

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avatar JR

Wow. First time I’ve ever heard that skipping commercials is stealing. Really? A legal requirement to watch commercials? Should I watch TV with a catheter?
And any product I buy that I am not 100% satisfied with, that means they are stealing from me? Should I call 911, or just file a civil claim?

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avatar Smithee ♦1,358 (Quarter)

In the DVR section, I probably should’ve put “stealing” in quotes. I don’t believe that it’s stealing, but it does break the business model, just like visiting the bathroom during commercials breaks the business model.

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