I’d been assuming that Bit Torrent would either go the way of other great file-sharing methods: be shut down like Napster, or become clogged to uselessness with viruses and fake files like Kazaa. The longer it goes on — three years at this point — the more I feel like it’s ushered in a golden age of media accessibility, in particular for episodic television. Most of the shows I watch regularly, in fact, started with being able to steal them easily.
I’ve gotten hooked on network shows I never would have bothered with — commercials and scheduling would have eroded the enjoyment level fatally in shows like snappy gal detective show Veronica Mars and jungle adventure pulp Lost. I’ve never had cable, but I’m a big fan of Battlestar “West-Wing-In-Space” Galactica and the punchy absurdity of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I’d never heard of the excellent Firefly and Carnivàle before they were cancelled and the writing on The Sopranos and Six Feet Under inspires and even makes me envious at times. (HBO’s success in particular at producing great, movie-calibur television has made me think a lot about how different models for production affect the quality. Maybe it’s that people who usually enter television start ready to make compromises, what with advertising filling 1/3 of the airwaves, but the idea of no commercial interference attracts more idealistic people who would be trying to make movies. For Christ’s sake, The Sopranos is every bit as good as The Godfather and is fifty times longer: that’s a cultural achievement.)
The corporations behind the media industries would like to make a comparison between stealing a handbag and file-sharing, and even if we allow this ludicrous analogy I feel more outraged when a big company rips off a small indie filmmaker. Both involve a morally ambiguous theft of ideas, and as far as I’m concerned neither should be decided by laws: on principle that it’s a question of conscience, and the practical consideration that the more powerful will buy the laws they want. Personally, I feel I earn back my karma — I talk about these shows more credibly and naturally than 100 overpriced ad hacks deployed to “generate buzz.” I myself make my living off of people buying my books, but I know from experience that the people who don’t buy my books contribute in other ways. Sometimes fans are interested in participating rather than consuming.
The other night my wife turned to me before we sat down with our dinner in front of the computer and said, “Who makes these programs available, anyway? It’s so good!” So for her, and for anyone who’s interested in hearing from the people behind Bit Torrents, here’s an interview with someone who encodes and releases television shows.
I found my way to Kirin’s file-sharing site when I noticed a lot of the more interesting television Bit Torrents were tagged #digitaldistractions: The Prisoner, Strangers With Candy, and Food Jammers, to name a few. The Frequently Asked Questions on his site indicated that this Victoria, BC-based man had more on his mind than just getting shit for free, so I contacted him via IRC and set up an interview.
JM: As someone who likes the episodic, short format of TV shows but hates the commercials and the randomness of channel surfing, #digitaldistractions has been really useful as a kind of filter. I trust your taste because I’ve liked the other stuff on the site I’ve watched, but also because you don’t have a profit motive. Do you hear that a lot?
K: I don’t think I could do it for profit and not feel like a criminal. That would be taking it just a bit too far in my opinion. I may believe in a somewhat socialist view of freedom of information and the right to try before buying, as well as a fundamental right to knowledge and entertainment to those without the ability to afford it… but I absolutely espouse the view that people who can afford things should pay whenever possible.
I started doing this simply as a way to collect episodes of Iron Chef for myself, since they weren’t (and still aren’t) available on DVD and due to the sheer number of episodes, one episode has little chance of airing again in a timely fashion. Since I have a healthy interest in cooking I’ve always been fascinated by and collected Food TV shows. The rest of it all happened as a result of other people wanting access to the shows that I like that I collected purely for my personal use. I guess it’s all grown steadily from there and I have kept my (admittedly) stubborn ways about what goes online on my site despite having other people provide much of the material.
Much of the controversy associated with file-sharing involves movies and music. What are your reasons for focusing on TV?
I think the question in itself actually answered about a third of the reasoning behind it. Certainly Hollywood and the American recording industry are the major sponsors of the drive to stamp out file-sharing. My main reasoning though is that I don’t have a lot of interest in movies, and music is just too expansive of a topic. I suppose I wouldn’t want to get into the path of two raging bulls either.
When it comes to television though, I see it as a passive market: It’s a broadcast medium. The money involved in the industry is (essentially) already paid. Advertising firms have paid to make most of it possible, and station license fees pay the rest. And this is where you have to take a leap of logic, but I feel it’s where it matters. Anyone who is going to pay for cable is already doing so. Anyone who likes DVDs of a certain TV series is likely to buy those DVDs if, and only if, they have the money to do so. So to people like myself and — in my estimation — most others, getting TV shows from the Internet is far more like using a VCR that you don’t even need to program and that you don’t necessarily need to know the show even aired.
In your FAQ you compare file-sharing to a library. Do you believe that?
If you try to approach file-sharing the way I do, it is a library. A library exists to provide copyrighted materials to the general public without purchasing, pending return of the item. They pay for the materials and keep track of those materials. They buy books, CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes, microfiche, or whatever. If a person likes the materials so much that they or the library are inconvenienced by it being borrowed repeatedly, the person will usually buy the materials themselves.
While the nature of the Internet makes downloads an instant copy of the materials instead of a physical item to remove and replace, the same basic principles apply: I pay for my cable to capture the shows I want to keep from TV. I see the commercials, whether I’m watching it while capturing, or while editing it into an AVI file. I pay for the internet connection that sends it to people. I pay for the DVDs of the shows I like. And if people like it, they can buy a better quality copy on DVD if it’s available. And if it’s not available, it’s nobody’s fault but the network or company that produced the show. They’re denying themselves the ability to profit and they are forcing people to get what they want from a shady source.
Let’s face it, if I didn’t want these companies to survive, I wouldn’t be trying to expose everyone to the products that I happen to find useful or entertaining, in hopes that they would support the artists too.