In 2001 I downloaded five songs by a now-defunct "folk rock duo" from the internet. The band was obscure, its albums not stocked at the small-town music stores nearby or the Walmart 25 minutes up Route 1. iTunes didn't exist yet. Amazon was still a bookstore. So I fired up LimeWire and snapped them up for free.
It was the last time I pirated something. And more and more, it feels like the last time I wasn't the punchline to a bad joke.
There are people who see piracy as a right and people who see it as a crime, and it's those people who suck up all the air in a debate that's never going to be resolved. I'm neither. I'm a person who pays for content because I want to support the people who created it, but who's increasingly frustrated by how hard content owners make it to just give them my money sometimes. That may put me in the minority, but I don't think I'm alone.
The fact is, it's become so easy—and, increasingly, necessary—to pirate content that not to do so takes not just conscious effort but self-deprivation. I waited nearly a full year to watch Game of Thrones, because that's how long it took to get from HBO to iTunes. If I had any interest in purchasing an Avatar 3D Blu-ray, I would have either had to buy a Panasonic 3DTV or wait three years just for the right to spend thirty bucks on FernGully with giant blue cat-people having tail sex.
Even content that's accessible doesn't often make much financial sense. Amazon's the most reasonably priced e-retailer in the world (seriously, it's got 1,000 albums for five bucks each right now), but even it can be fraught with peril and annoyance. Ebooks that cost more than their paperback equivalents. The specter of DRM haunting every click. A layout so unnavigable you feel like you're being punished.
Want to comparison shop? Forget about it. Ecosystems aren't just apps and software anymore, they're movies and TV shows and everything you'd ever want to watch, read, or listen to. On any given day the best price might be on Amazon or iTunes or Google Play or Xbox, but if you want the simple comfort of knowing everything you paid for with your own American dollars lives in one place? Expect to pay full freight for most of it.
Streaming services like Spotify and Hulu Plus have offered some respite, but not if you're a Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or Metallica or latter-day Radiohead or Beatles or Adele fan, or if you don't want to wait a week to watch the shows you love. We live in a time when there's no one outlet that's figured out a convenient way for us to give them our money in exchange for things we would like to own. And that's crazy.
All of which is to say that buying content has become, in this age of antiquated pricing and fragmented-to-hell retail structures, nothing more than an act of charity. I pay for albums and movies and ebooks for the exact same reasons I toss a buck in a street performer's open violin case. And I'm penalized for it.
Record labels and studios seem not to recognize, too, that it's always been like this. Before torrenting we would burn CDs for each other. Before CDs there were mixtapes. Before mixtapes… okay, well, I'm not that old. But for as long as music has been shareable, people with limited disposable income—the college kids, the entry-level wagers—have been sharing it.
They're also, though, the ones who go to the concerts and buy the posters. They're the influencers, the people who give a band you've never heard of enough notoriety that they show up on the radars of people like me. If I were 19, I'd be one of them.
But I'm not. I'm an old guy who can afford to spend a few extra bucks each month supporting the bands and authors and actors and directors whose work he appreciates. Hell, I'm a guy who used to be one of those people. But it's hard to keep it up. It's hard knowing that so little of those profits actually go the artists themselves. It's hard that every single online retail outlet makes it, well, so hard.
I pay for content because I respect the people who make it. It would just be nice if I didn't feel so disrespected by the people who sell it.