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Is it Ever Okay to Steal Entertainment?

This article was written by in Consumer. 30 comments.

As a part-time producer of creative works that I think are worth something (though I’m not currently requiring payment for anything), I struggle with the urge to acquire my entertainment media as conveniently, quickly and cheaply as possible. My viewpoints on this have changed over time, especially as my disposable income grew, and I’d like to share with you my current ideas / rationalizations on when it’s okay to steal.

Music you’ve already paid for

Depending on when you were born, you may have bought some of your favorite albums in upwards of five formats: vinyl, 8-track, cassettee, CD, and MP3 (if you lost the CD, or it got too scratchy). I’ve never actually held an 8-track tape, but I’ve owned albums in all the other formats, and I’ve decided I’m not re-buying anything.

When I bought my first CD in 1989, (Faith No More’s “The Real Thing”, which still rocks really hard), the people who produced it had no intention of tracking its sale for more than a couple of years, not to mention that conventional wisdom at the time considered the new Compact Disc format to be practically immortal.

Practical concerns aside, I paid for it once, and music isn’t meant to expire. So, even though the CD itself got lost somewhere along the last twenty years, when I decide I want it back in my music library, I won’t be paying for it. It was already paid for. I’ll just acquire it somewhere.

Shows your location won’t allow you to watch

My wife and I deeply enjoy a few shows that are produced and released by the BBC. We have BBC America, but even the shows that make it over to this country are delayed, usually six months or more, and they’re often edited, censored and shown in standard definition (as opposed to HD).

So I download those shows as soon as they’re available online. This is not the same as downloading, say, “True Blood” without being a subscriber to HBO. I feel a little more justified in yanking “Doctor Who” down to my hard drive because BBC content is produced without regard for sponsors or subscription fees, as we understand them.

Movies and TV from used/rental stores

I’m a little more iffy on this one; sometimes it depends on the quality of the movie, but after a DVD is bought once, the studio got paid as much as they were ever going to. If the DVD then ends up in a used/rental store, I don’t have a moral problem with copying the DVD to my hard drive, and then taking the DVD back to the store.

There’s also the case that I saw the movie when it was new in the theater, and I’ve rented it at least once. In that case, I can’t bring myself to pay for it again, and I’ll just make a digital copy.

Frankly, if it were easier, and a little bit cheaper, to legitimately buy and download (and keep, forever, free of DRM… otherwise it’s leasing, not buying) a movie. I’d probably do that instead of “stealing” it.

The flipside

On the other hand, when a show originates online (e.g. Homestar Runner, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, Ask a Ninja), I’m more than happy to support the creators by buying DVDs and merchandise. Why? Because they don’t bother me with commercials. They can’t keep making the show without me, and that’s a business model I can get behind.

Your ideas

Do you have similar rules for yourself? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Published or updated July 21, 2009.

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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 .

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

I’m not sure I can get behind this one – to me, and I don’t want to sound self-righteous, media is consumed just like anything else. Moving beyond the legality of copying DVDs, which is black and white, there’s a large ethical problem with it. Because the movie producer got paid once and therefore all copies are free game has a lot of logical holes in it. Should it be the same with photocopying whole books from the library? Music from a CD your friend bought? How about taking the furniture from a rental condo when you leave … after all, the furniture manufacturer already got paid, right? Maybe you’ll just use it for a while and then return it to the condo when you’re done. Of course I’m being tongue and cheek a little bit, but I’m trying to make a point. You consume media – and you can pay for a lifetime right to consume it all you want – like buying a DVD, or an Mp3, or a book, etc. – or you can rent it for one time use. Netflix, online book swaps, libraries, and the like are examples of the renting model.

Maybe I’m too strict on that issue for likes of many people, but I think that unless someone says that something is meant to be free, then it isn’t and you should feel the obligation to pay for it – even if you can get away with not paying for it.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

For the sake of debate, here are my objections to the rules you outlined above.

Music you’ve already paid for: The problem I see here is that one basically absolves themselves of any personal responsibility for caring for their own property by following this rule. With just about anything else you own, it’s your responsibility to take care of it. And if you don’t, you’ll need to eventually purchase a replacement. One could make the argument that since there’s no negative impact on the content producer that makes it okay. But I’m not sure that’s entirely sound. There may be no direct impact on the content producer, but if by downloading a copy you’re supporting a platform that others use for less moral reasons, then there is still arguably a negative impact.

Movies & TV from used/rental stores: This argument I find even more dubious. The problem here is that the amount of used sales (that the studio does not receive payment for) is directly tied to the amount of new sales (that they do receive payment for). At the end of the day, the amount of used copies available must be less than or equal to the number of copies that have sold new. By making a copy of a used DVD, you’re breaking this rule. Here’s an example. Suppose a studio has sold 200 copies of a DVD and 100 of those copies have been resold to the used market. If you have 101 people lined up to purchase used copies, the 101st person must instead buy it new. Now suppose the 1st person waiting on a used copy instead takes it home, copies it, and returns it. Now there are 101 used copies but still only 200 new sales. That person’s actions have indirectly deprived the content holder of compensation for their work.

I’ve seen a lot of people make justifications for piracy, and have even tried to justify a lot of it to myself in the past. At this point in my life though, I don’t believe that it’s hardly ever really justified. The biggest problem I see that breaks most peoples’ arguments is that there are just too many entertainment options available. If you can’t find a particular movie/book/video game in your price range, there are thousands, perhaps even millions, of other options to fill your time that will fit your budget that do not require you to violate somebody’s rights as a copyright holder.

That said, I do have one situation where I believe a person is perfectly justified in breaking the copyright. If content has digital restrictions on its usage that are undisclosed at the time of sale, and the point of sale will not take a return, then I think that the user is entitled to break the copyright in order to use the product as it was sold to them.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

Yeah, sorry, but I’d have to agree with the people above me. I can’t really get behind your justifications for stealing.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

I gotta side with the other commenters here… it does sound like you’re just trying to justify unethical — even illegal — behavior. Granted, none of us our perfect. When I was younger, had very limited income, and had even more limited access to music, I did use Napster. I rationalized it to myself in many ways. “I’d buy the CD if I had somewhere to buy it from.” “Why should I pay for an entire CD when I only want one song! I’d buy just that song if they’d let me!” “The artist is dead anyway, what do I care about the record company?” But I know deep down it was still wrong.

Nowadays, I don’t listen to a lot of music, but when I do I use online radio sites, which I hope are legal (some of them are still figuring that out it seems) and occasionally my husband or I will buy a few songs from iTunes or Amazon.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

I’ll have to side with the others; except I can agree with downloading shows that are outside your region and not readily available.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

Something I’ve been struggling with is how I can give money to an industry that uses a lot of that money to hire lawyers to sue people like me. I used to get all my music legally (and still do for the most part) but every time the RIAA sues another customer, I come one step closer to deciding never to give them another dime of my money.

DRMs are another thing pushing me toward piracy. There are a number of video games where the version you buy in a store is crippled by DRMs and the version you can get from bittorrent isn’t. I know it’s wrong and everything, but why would I pay for an inferior product? DRMs only punish people that actually bought the product legally so in effect, the only people you’re treating like crooks are the ones that aren’t breaking the law.

I realize none of this excuses breaking the law, but I’m only willing to jump through so many hoops.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

I can understand if I was on that side of the table, I would be upset, but I’m not. I have dl illegal songs and will continue to do so. I buy more now, but if you can find it, why not?

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avatar 8 Anonymous

Well, I have to disagree with the above comments. I think it should be ok to download music, copy cds/dvds, etc., if you have paid for it already.

That is just as if I were to buy an iPhone and pull it apart and copy (recreate) all the parts and create a clone off of it and give it to my friends. I bougth one of the devices and now that should give me a right to do whatever I want with it. It should be the same for entertainment, if I bought a cd I should be able to make 87 copies and give them out to my friends, now it is up to my friends if they want to take it or not, because they never paid for it in the past… If you paid for the original you should be able to get a copy of it for free.

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avatar 9 Anonymous

I guess put me in the evil camp. I can understand the arguments about why you shouldn’t copy music and movies, but I just don’t care. Some thoughts on the scenarios you mentioned:

1. Music you bought already – I have no problem with this. If I bought a CD, why should I have to pay again to enjoy the same music on a different medium? As long as I did purchase it in some form, it shouldn’t matter. I believe there is something in the law where it is considered fair use to make a backup copy of a copyrighted work you already purchased, provided you own the original and it is for your own personal use.

2. Shows from other markets – Again I don’t see the problem with this. You would buy the work if you could but they are too stupid to offer it to you. You downloading it online doesn’t deprive the copyright owner of any money because they never offered you the opportunity to purchase it.

3. Rental DVDs – Yeah, I copy rented DVDs too. I typically copy them because I want to watch them but might not be able to get to it during the rental period. It is kind of like recording a TV show you like because you are out of the house when it comes on. This just allows me to watch it when it is convenient for me. Most stuff we only watch once, and if we like it enough to watch it again in the future my wife will insist I go and buy a “real copy”. My view is copying is OK for a single viewing, but if it is going to be part of your permanent library you should purchase the real thing.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

I can’t jump on the soap box with the commenters above.

I don’t do it anymore, mainly cause it slows down my computer and there are alternatives but I was a senior in HS/Freshman in College when Napster, Bearshare, and bunch of others busted out on there own, and boy did I partake just because I didn’t think of it as wrong.

I’d like to ask the males above who has checked out the youtube like sites which broadcast adult material. There is no difference except that site steals without you having to download.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

I was once a spunky youth who downloaded as much as her 56k modem would allow (which isn’t a whole lot when your mother is also using the network to play Everquest, let me tell you that!). Then, I got mixed up with a certain crowd… the entertainment industry.

I went to film school, and I lived in Los Angeles (Hollywood, specifically). And I got caught up in the issues surrounding the writer’s strike. To me, this all comes down to one thing: residuals (which are called “royalties” in most businesses outside of film/television). The big guys get paid from the initial profits of the movie, but everyone else (including the writers/songwriters, actors, artists, the guy who holds a boom mic) gets paid as people buy DVDs/CDs. They get a tiny cut – writers get about 4 cents when you buy a DVD. It doesn’t sound like much, but that 4 cents per DVD feeds a family, over time (when you’ve written multiple things – it adds up). But it doesn’t add up to much: the median salary for a Hollywood writer is only $40,000 in one of the most expensive cities in the country. (Believe me – I’ve seen Hollywood on a $30,000 salary. That literally only buys you a crappy apartment with a roommate and ramen to eat. Imagine trying to feed a family on $40,000 in that city!)

Another issue is that residuals/royalties feed into the health care plans and pension funds of these people. When you copy or download a movie that you would have otherwise bought or rented on DVD (yes, they sometimes get residuals from rentals!!!), you’re basically depriving the pension fund of the writers, bit actors, lighting guys, sound guys, etc. etc. I can’t, in my own conscience, contribute to a Roth IRA for myself and then turn around and download a movie instead of rightfully contributing to the creators’ retirement plans as well.

I do, however, make allowances for things I already own. Federal law allows you to make a copy of entertainment you’ve purchased for backup/archival purposes (NOT to give to someone else). So if you’ve got something on vinyl, it is within your rights to convert it to MP3 and stick on your iPod. It is not, however, within your rights to give out that MP3 to people who haven’t purchased the song in some way.

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avatar 12 Anonymous

I have to disagree with this post. Pirating copyrighted works is unethical and effectively stealing from the copyright owners.

If you bought a cassette or record and then make a copy of that to another media for your own personal use then that is fine. If you bought a record then that does not give you rights to pirate a CD quality recording, the 2 are not the same. If the CD quality copy is no better or different then why would you need it?

Television is copyrighted just like everything else. Just cause something originally airs on broadcast TV does not make it legal to pirate it. By that logic any Network TV show in the USA would be exempt from copyright protection and they obviously aren’t.

Foreign works are no different. Your link on the text “BBC content is produced without regard for sponsors” goes to the True Blood site so I think your intended pointer is broken. I’m not sure what you are meaning about BBC content and sponsorship and how that relates to copyright. BBC is generally commercial free but thats cuase they are state supported. BBC content is paid for by television license fees that everyone in UK is required to pay. So British tax dollars are paying for that program. I don’t think there is anything saying you should be free to distribute their copyrighted works. And certainly just cause they don’t release it as fast as you want doesn’t justify theft.

Renting something, copying it and returning it is outright piracy with no legal or ethical justifications.

“sometimes it depends on the quality of the movie” No it never depends on the quality of the work. All copyrighted material has the same protections. The law has no “depends” if its “any good or not” qualifiers.

The TV and film industry is a major part of the US economy and they employ 100’s of thousands of people and you’re undercutting those peoples livelihood.

Pirating digital media for individual use is hardly a severe crime and I don’t think 5 years in prison or $250k files are realistic for individuals. To me it seems more like jumping a turnstile to get a free ride on a subway and the punishments should be similar. Just cause you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it or that its legal.

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avatar 13 Anonymous

I seem to have a different opinion then everyone here. At one point in time i was the biggest pirate anyone i know, knows. So i had the largest questionably legal collection out of anyone i knew. I also had the largest paid for CD and largest paid for DVD collections. I bought more DVDs, bought more CDs, and downloaded more media than anyone. It all started over 2800 baud modem dial-up accessing BBS systems. A buddy copies a couple tracks for me from the band Rammstein. I loved them. They had only released their first album at this point. And only in Germany. I downloaded everything i could. Because it was good i talked about them. On their first tour in the US a different buddy took me to my first concert. Opening for them was this band Orgy. They were good. Part of Orgy formed Julien-K and Circuit Freq. Because of downloading two songs i went on to buy everything ever produced (singles included) by all 4 bands. I’ve been to 7 concerts and bought multiple non-music items from these bands. Some things i’ve downloaded are not worth owning saving me from buying the albums or dvds.

If i take a rental DVD and record it via my TIVO is that stealing or fair-use time shifting??? What about by using TiVO-like software??? What if i watch an episode or movie on YouTube that should not have been uploaded??? I should maintain my items. What then when my CD case gets stolen??? The lines on this argument are so gray you can’t see where the black fades to white.

I do all my renting via RedBox with promo codes. Not having to go rent the movie a second time only saves me the gas or foot power to get a RedBox machine as i am not spending anything on the rental. So my copy is not depriving media rites from anyone. You can argue that if was going to drive to a RedBox i am depriving the gas station of the gas i’d have purchased.

Things that are worth paying for will get paid for. I never try to argue that downloading is not stealing. But because i downloaded a couple of tracks i have spent tens of thousands (over $70,000 – i’ve added it up before) on media related purchases. I t may be stealing but if you would not have paid for it …. Even the RIAA knows this. Only 1 in 10 downloads equates to a lost sale. And likely that is really 1 in 10 downloaders would have paid for it. So am i taking away your 4 cents if i would not have paid for it via purchase or rental??? Plus your argument is a non-valid appeal to emotion.

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avatar 14 Anonymous

I’m sorry if my comment came off as a “non-valid appeal to emotion,” as it was not meant that way. I was trying to explain a system that I believe most people outside of it do not understand. Most people seem to believe that when a scriptwriter or songwriter writes something, it gets purchased by a studio for a large chunk of money and then the writer goes off and puts that money in a savings account. Meanwhile, they believe the studio reaps in all the future profits from now until eternity.

What I was trying to explain was that it’s really the other way around: writers get very little in the way of an upfront fee, and their livelihood actually comes from the individual purchases of tickets, DVDs, CDs, song downloads, etc. Many people justify downloading by saying it only hurts the studio, but what I’m trying to point out is that the studio already got their large cut. It’s the little guys that are hurt when they are deprived of their residuals.

John, you’ve explained that paid or unpaid, legal or not, you are a huge consumer of media. Whether or not you care who gets paid for your consumption is your own decision. I just want to make sure people have all the information necessary to make that decision.

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avatar 15 Anonymous

Thanks for clarifying. I did not realize that the system works like that. I always hear about “selling a script” to a studio. I did think it was the other way around.

Plus i forgot to add earlier … If you like it buy it.

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avatar 16 Anonymous


“That is just as if I were to buy an iPhone and pull it apart and copy (recreate) all the parts and create a clone off of it and give it to my friends.”

And that would also be illegal. There are these things called patents which apply to things like iPhones.

As for copies of stuff you already own, I have no problem with someone digitizing their old vinyls or ripping CDs they own. However, it would be unethical to digitize/rip them and then sell or even give away the old vinyls or CDs — which is not to say that even I wouldn’t consider giving away my old hard copies just because I hate to see things end up in the dumpster. However, the most ethical thing would be to buy the files you want and then sell or giveaway the hard copies without any guilt — or just keep the hard copies for back up if you digitize/rip them but don’t want to send them to the landfill.

However, regardless, I would NOT recommend using illegal websites or file-sharing programs to get copies of stuff even if you have hard copies. That promotes illegal piracy, especially if the pirate receives any money — which may be in the form of advertising on their website even if you do not pay them directly.

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avatar 17 Anonymous

How could that be illegal? If I bought something, I should be able to do whatever I want with it…?

Look at it this way… If I go to a restaurant and order a sandwich, pay for it and walk out of the door. Right before I get in my car I drop it. I go back in and tell them what happened. Should I have to pay for another sandwich or should the restaurant give me another one for free, since I just paid for one?

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avatar 18 Anonymous

Really?! You must be joking! Please tell me you’re joking!

You think you’re entitled to a new sandwich if you drop one?! If they want to make you another sandwich to keep you as a loyal customer, that’s very nice of them, but they don’t owe you one because you’re a klutz.

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avatar 19 Anonymous

I struggle with this because a friend uses the “torrent” sites to pull down scads of music and then offers them to me. I gave in to temptation once, but don’t anymore.

But what about the time-honored tradition of giving a mix tape/CD? I will admit to giving and receiving these as well as many individual copies of albums/CDs over the years.

U2’s Bono told Rolling Stone that only teenage girls and really honest people still buy music. Guess I’m pretty close to honest.

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avatar 20 Anonymous

P.S. I think one of the problems with this whole thing is that people think they are ENTITLED to music, and especially free music. Like ANYTHING ELSE, you are not entitled to steal something just because it’s not available for sale in your area – and you are definitely not entitled to steal something because you don’t want to pay the price, even if you don’t want the extra gadgets and gizmos something comes with. It’s not like I can justify stealing a button from a dress because I just want some awesome, really unique button and otherwise I’d have to pay for the entire dress!

Personally, I find it a scary symptom of a larger entitlement disease that’s infecting our generations and causing deeper problem. Would we have had this recession if people hadn’t felt entitled to have houses they couldn’t afford? Entitled to have all sorts of other things they couldn’t afford but could put on credit? “But I deserve it! But I work hard!” Personally, I’m sickened by the whining of my impatient, greedy generation over wanting stuff they shouldn’t have when they shouldn’t have it because they feel entitled.

Anyhow, I hope to hell I’m cured of it. Goodness knows, I’ve been far from perfect – especially when I was a kid. But I do know better now, which is part of becoming a mature adult, imho.

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avatar 21 Smithee

I buy a lot more music now that I can pick out individual songs from iTunes and Amazon MP3, and get them instantly, in high quality, without DRM. Physical CDs are just a waste of packaging to me, since I know my hearing can’t tell the difference between CD audio and an mp3 encoded at 256 kbps, but they also come with songs I don’t want to pay for. I’m so glad we don’t have to put up with that nonsense anymore.

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avatar 22 Anonymous

John, thanks for the BBS memories. Flexo, Smithee and I all have BBS roots and, in fact, is how I first knew them.

Smithee, back in my old job at the WSJ I once talked to my old colleague, Real Time columnist Jason Fry about an article he wrote about the death of the CD. The very argument you’re making came up re: unwanted songs. If you’re interested, it’s here and starts at ~7:23 in.

Jason’s related article can be found here:

These pieces are from Jan 27-28, 2008 so they’re only slightly dated.

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avatar 23 Anonymous

I will have to say this is an interesting conversation. Here is my view on all of this. I own a ton of CD’s. I do not have the time or energy to rip my CD’s to mp3’s so I can listen to them on my computer or elsewhere. I have not issues at all with finding them online and downloading them. Why…because I already own it. Another example is ROMs for emulators. I still own a NES and a SNES and a ton of games. They are in storage, but that doesn’t mean I stopped owning them. It is much more convenient for me to play them on an emulator than it is to hook them up to the tv and so forth.

My biggest grip is songs bought off iTunes and other digital downloads only. Me personally, I like having a physical tangible product that I can hold in my hand. IF my PC crashes or I uninstall/reinstall my OS too many times I will lose me songs. Sorry…that doesn’t fly. If I bought them I should be able to redownload them ALL AGAIN. I think it is BS that I have had to rebuy songs because they got deleted and were not backed up. Things like this is what forces people to download stuff illegally.

So, call me unethical or immoral….I don’t care. I think the media companies need to change their ways and be more understanding. Sadly…they are only looking to see how many more pennies they can squeeze out of people.

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avatar 24 Anonymous

There are some really twisted self-justifications here. Here’s the basic argument:

1. Someone else owns this.
2. I want it.
3. Why should I pay for it?
4. So I won’t.

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avatar 25 Anonymous

So Smithee, once I get your published content via RSS or email subscription or the site, maybe even clicking on referral links and/or ads, then you’ve gotten your share from me and therefore I’m free to copy that content and put it on my personal website right?

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avatar 26 Anonymous

I agree for the most part, but…

Music – I agree that music is “immortal” in a sense. To that extent, I see no problem downloading music I already own so that I can put it on my ipod or whatever. But your example of having lost the CD I think is not quite the same – if you lose your favorite t-shirt that you’ve had since college, then you’d have to go without it or try to find a similar one somewhere. Downloading something that you could just as easily rip seems fine, because you’re not really taking something you don’t already have, but downloading something you no longer possess seems a bit disingenuous.

Rental movies/TV – If you’re not going to watch it right away, why bother renting it now? I don’t have a problem doing this every once in awhile because some unforeseen circumstance prevented you from watching it during the rental period, but I would have a problem doing this constantly and holding the recorded movie for an extended period of time or for multiple viewings. The point of a rental is that you can only claim limited ownership for a specific period of time – how you use it during that time doesn’t matter. Whether you watch a rented movie/TV show or not, your title to watch it only is valid for the period during which you rented it.

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avatar 27 Anonymous

I was taken back (and kinda put off) by this original post, and thought that Smithee might be alone in his views, but I have been even more shocked by the comments. It’s humorous to see the justifications people make for stealing other people’s creative works that are copyrighted – rather than defining your own set of ethics around every situation (which, conveniently enough, when you do that it almost always works to your benefit in some way), why don’t you just say at a minimum my ethics will be above blatantly illegal activity. Did the artist or record company or TV program provide a free download? No? OK then, don’t download a bootleg and justify that it’s not wrong because you bought it once in your life. Just because of the nature (digital) of music and how easily transferable it is, we have this “it should be free” mentality when that really isn’t the case. We can all draw from our own set of ethics / morality based on our experiences and everything, but can’t we all get behind the “if it’s illegal I shouldn’t do it” foundation for our behavior?

By the way, there’s a “Copyright 2003-2009…All rights reserved” at the bottom of this blog … anyone else find that a funny twist of irony in this all?

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avatar 28 Anonymous

Eric said:
“By the way, there’s a “Copyright 2003-2009…All rights reserved” at the bottom of this blog … anyone else find that a funny twist of irony in this all?”

I did a few hours ago.

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avatar 29 Anonymous

Anyone that has or will sing “Happy Birthday” to someone without sending in royalties is stealing. Businesses (restaurants mostly) no longer sing this and sing their own song for this very reason. Until you are willing to stop such blatant violations of copyright law (i’ve never met anyone besides myself that is willing) don’t expect others to stop their violations.

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avatar 30 Anonymous


If you’re singing to someone in a private setting, that’s not illegal. There’s nothing special about “Happy Birthday”. You can sing that or anything you want among friends and family and no one gives a damn (unless you sing terribly, in which case your audience might). That’s very different from a public, commercial performance.

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