Why I Steal Movies… Even Ones I'm In

Like a billion other people, I download things illegally. I'm also an actor, writer and director whose income depends on revenue from DVDs, movies and books. This leads to many conflicts in my head, in my heart, and in bars.

From an industry standpoint, physical media has a great advantage: It is its own copy-protection. Even disregarding the DRM built-in to discs, to make copies is hugely impractical for the average consumer. But physical media is disappearing. We simply don't need it any more. Remember slinging out your VHS collection? That's how I'm now thinking about my DVDs. And don't think you're safe either, Blu-rays.

With bandwidth and storage increasing exponentially, getting cheaper, and consumers becoming more tech-savvy, it's becoming easier every day to grab free copies of books, movies and albums. This is why Internet users are thrilled. Including me. This is why people in the entertainment industry are terrified. Including me.

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I live in London and many of my favo(u)rite TV shows are American. So if I want to see the latest episode of South Park or Friday Night Lights I'll head over to Pirate Bay or ez.tv and nab a torrent moments after broadcast. I once even downloaded Shaun of the Dead to use in my reel, because it was easier than ripping the DVD.

Torrenting is probably too hassle-y for the average viewer: Installing Transmission, VLC, perhaps re-encoding to watch on my TV—but I'm pretty techy (ok, a geek) and have been doing this for years. However, if a show is available on iTunes—as South Park is to me now I've set up a US iTunes account (yet another tech hassle I had to overcome…)—I'll click and buy. It's simple, quick, better quality, not to mention legal. It's also cheap. Graham Linehan (creator of The IT Crowd) described this situation to me as "better than free." Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park have always tolerated torrent sites hosting pirate versions of their show, as I imagine they see it as constant promotion. Also, they've realised there's nothing they can do about it.

The promotion argument makes sense. South Park for example makes money from from syndication, advertising, merchandising and DVD sales (although the latter market is dwindling) so perhaps the extra visibility helps.

The visibility argument certainly makes sense for my short-lived BBC show. I'm revamping my website right now and my web team asked me if I would like them to hunt down and put and end to the torrents and RapidShare links to The Peter Serafinowicz Show, which was recently released in the UK on DVD. I said no because the show is still relatively unknown and I'd like as many people to see it as possible. In fact, I've used the torrents myself when I haven't had a copy to hand.

Much of it is already up on YouTube. If people like it enough they'll want to buy, to own, the DVD, which has lots of great extra stuff, but the DVD isn't even sold in the USA. The freely available content serves as a calling card for me, and for the other cast members and writers, hopefully enabling us to produce more hilarious stuff for the world's discerning comedy fans.

If you know where to look, the whole contents of the DVD, extras, menus, all in super quality, are available instantly, for free. Great!? Except I don't make any money, nor does anyone else involved with the show. The PS Show started out on YouTube, with me and my brother James shooting stuff for zero dollars, using basic equipment and making it look as good as we could. But all comedy can't be made like this. A slick show like 30 Rock couldn't exist without a huge budget to pay all the writers, actors, cameramen, production staff etc. Who's gonna pay these people in the future if everything is free?

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"Ownership" is starting to change its meaning. If you buy a movie from iTunes you "own" the right to watch it on certain devices within certain constraints. When you "own" a DVD, you have the right to watch it whenever and wherever you want. However: you must watch ten minutes of promos, trailers and anti-piracy threats. I'll take the download, please.

But often you can't do it legally: I recently wanted to show my son Disney's classic Jungle Book and intended to get it on iTunes. Unfortunately, it is currently incarcerated within The Disney Vault. So I'm afraid I simply DL'ed a pixel-clear pirate copy which arrived in seconds. My moral justification for this? I once bought the VHS. It's your own vault, Disney!

I recently got an iPad while I was in the US (my Gizmodo review is coming soon) and have been using its excellent iBooks app. The backlit screen isn't perfect for reading, but it's close. I bought quite a few books but there was one in particular (recommended to me by the comedian Tim Minchin) that I was super keen to read: Ian McEwan's latest, Solar. It wasn't available in the iBooks store, so I tried Amazon via its (inferior) Kindle app. As I tried to check out, it told me that it was unavailable in my country (I have a UK account). Exasperated, I downloaded a pirate copy and was reading it within minutes. My moral justification for this? I will now advertise the book. "Solar is a sun-tastic read!" (Seriously, it's great.)

I own a physical copy of Anthony Lane's brilliant collection of New Yorker reviews, Nobody's Perfect. It's a heavy read (around 3 lbs.) and I wanted to get a copy for my iPad. I tracked down an ePub version of the book at the Barnes & Noble site, assuming, since iBooks also uses the format, that I could tranfer it to my iPad. Only the iPad doesn't read Adobe-encoded ebooks, not now at least. With the help of some sympathetic Twitter followers I then spent around ten futile hours installing Xcode and obscure Python scripts (not the funny ones) on two different computers in what seems to be the only method one can use to illegally decrypt Adobe ebooks. My moral justification for this? I've paid for the book twice.

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Frank Zappa once said that Communism could never work because people like to own stuff. I felt a similar way about CDs when music began to arrive in MP3 form. Now, my music happily resides in my iTunes library, spread over various computers and iPods.

Music's purpose is to be heard. It doesn't need to live on discs in boxes on a groaning shelf any more. When I go into a Virgin Megastore or HMV (a rare occurrence now, a vestigial habit) I just see a huge room filled with redundant plastic. Now with Spotify and other streaming services I'm even starting to begrudge the space taken up on my hard drive.

I recently directed the music video for Hot Chip's "I Feel Better." Contractually, the video had to be hosted on EMI's official YouTube channel, which disabled non-UK users from viewing it, limiting its audience by around 80%. Frustrated, I put it up on my own YouTube channel with no region restrictions, and at time of writing is just shy of a million views. EMI then remotely disabled embedding on my version, thereby limiting its audience again. If you're in the business of promoting a band, why would you want to stop people watching their promotional video?

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I don't understand business, but I can see that the old model needs to change. Perhaps it'll involve direct micro-payments. Perhaps you'll pay Apple or whoever a monthly flat fee to license all their content. Most importantly, I believe that the direct and deepening connection artists now have with their fans, be they independent bands or Hollywood talkshow hosts, will play a huge part. But one thing is for sure: artists will always make art, and money-makers will always find a way to make money.

In the meantime, I'll be suing myself for pirating my own show. And I'm pretty scared, because I have an amazing lawyer.

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Peter Serafinowicz, a celebrated British writer/producer/director/actor/musician/comedian/voice model, is joining us for a few weeks to talk about the tech issues that delight, frustrate and motivate him every day. He recently launched his Peter Serafinowicz Show DVD in the UK—also on YouTube—and will soon release his Look Around You DVD in the USA. This fall, he will be starring with Will Arnett in a Fox sitcom created by Arrested Development's Mitchell Hurwitz. If you don't already follow Peter on Twitter, you should be ashamed of yourself.