Piracy has recently become a hot topic again, at least on Hacker News:
Many people say that piracy is never an acceptable solution and that it should be prevented at all costs. Some are even questioning the morality of those who pirate any digital content. I don’t believe this holds much water. Sure, it’s easy to pay for the Netflix and Spotify subscriptions and then confidently claim that piracy is immoral. But that’s a very simplistic take. Piracy is a much more complex topic, and I want to show you how quickly you can lose your sanity if you try to be a good citizen, willing to pay the full price for every piece of content you consume.
This post is not a comprehensive review of all things that are wrong in the digital world today. It’s just a collection of my recent frustrating experiences, but I do think I have enough examples to argue that no matter how hard you try to do the right thing, resorting to piracy is sometimes unavoidable.
Before someone starts screaming “Nemanja is a terrible person and he should burn in hell for all eternity”, I want to make clear that I’m trying to support content creators as much as humanly possible. I’ve spent 11,670 EUR (13,260 USD) on Bandcamp albums alone, which means around 9,900 EUR went directly to the artists. I’ve also purchased more than 200 ebooks and impossible-to-calculate number of CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays, and vinyls.
Now that the question of my credibility is hopefully out of the way, let’s see what’s the current state of affairs in areas of books, music, movies, and TV shows.
The last time I downloaded a pirated book was probably some 12-13 years ago, while I was still at university. I started buying books as soon I got my first salary, and never had any good reason to use piracy after that. Amazon Kindle is my favorite gadget ever and I read all non-technical books on it. For technical books I use several great ebook sources, such as eBooks.com, InformIT, No Starch Press, Manning, and Gumroad. All of them give you DRM-free books in PDF format.
But there is one reason for piracy that I can understand, and that’s DRM protection (maybe I’m biased, but I don’t include Kindle DRM in this category, because it’s easily removed with DeDRM plugin for Calibre). When the price of the ebook is the same as the price of a physical book, I expect to own the book, forever. I also expect to be able to download the ebook, and read it how, where, and when I want. For example, I really sympathize with people who have to use VitalSource and their crappy Bookshelf app, because I once paid $74.99 for the book that’s not even mine now (once I realized that I couldn’t defeat their DRM, I stopped buying books from them). DRM protection only hurts the legitimate users, and I hope more people will vote with their wallets and stop giving money to companies that don’t trust their customers.
I must start this section by praising Bandcamp, because I think it’s one the greatest things that has ever happened in the music distribution history. There are so many reasons to love Bandcamp: generous revenue share, DRM-free music, lossless formats, Bandcamp Fridays, and monumental historical reissues. If you want to support the artists directly, you can’t go wrong with buying their music on Bandcamp (fans have paid artists more than one billion dollars so far, and I was very happy to see that threshold crossed few months ago).
If you prefer the subscription model, streaming platforms such as Apple Music and Spotify are a decent choice. Their pricing has mostly eliminated the need to pirate music (although this comes at a great cost for less popular or independent artists, because they are not making enough money in this model).
But even with all these digital options available, there are still good reasons why piracy might be justifiable.
1. Licensing issues
I hate it when someone sells the music I want to buy, but not in my country (I use Apple Music, but I assume Spotify and others all have regional libraries, too). What’s even more frustrating is that your library is constantly changing—albums just disappear when they stop being available in your region. And you don’t even get notified when that happens—the album either disappears, or even worse, gets butchered into pieces with incorrect metadata. This happened more times than I can remember (probably over 20), and now I regret not taking note of every occurrence.
2. Expensive second-hand market
Reasonable person might expect that music on a physical medium is cheap on the second-hand market, but that’s often not the case. I’m not talking about the rare and collectible vinyl records that sell for $8,500. What I mean is that even a stupid little piece of plastic with some digital content can cost you $469.99. And several pieces of plastic in a box can go as high as €849 (luckily, my wife sometimes succeeds in preventing me from doing stupid things, such as buying this boxset). All these examples are from my recent experience—I didn’t search for the most expensive albums just to have wild examples for this post. And this money doesn’t even go to artists, so unless you are a collector, I don’t see any good reason to pay these inflated prices.
What’s even more sad is that, by participating in this broken model, we are allowing important pieces of music history to just disappear. From the music preservation perspective, piracy is not only acceptable, but required.
3. Vinyl-only releases
I don’t get the vinyl craze, but at least I’d been able to ignore it most of my life. It wasn’t a big deal for me until records labels started releasing albums exclusively on vinyl. Triple Point Records had released some brilliant albums that were vinyl-only and not available elsewhere, so I decided to buy a record player with USB output. After listening to all the hype about superior vinyl sound, I was extremely disappointed with all the crackles and pops. Fortunately, I found out how to fix these issues with ClickRepair software, but only after a full year of sadness. But even ClickRepair couldn’t remove all the clicks from my latest vinyl purchase, so I just gave up and downloaded the CD rip from Soulseek (the CD had been out of print for years, which is why I bought the vinyl in the first place).
Sometimes the labels will allow you to download the album only if you buy the vinyl, so you end up paying $31.37 USD to have a box shipped to you across the world, when all you ever wanted was a simple digital copy.
Anyway, I don’t have anything against the vinyl itself—I’m ok with music being released on vinyl, cassette, wax cylinder, or any other archaic sound medium. Just give me the option to buy the digital version, please.
Movies and TV shows
Oh boy, I don’t even know where to start with this one. The whole industry is just the worst. Up until a few years ago, pretty much everything was available on iTunes, but then everyone decided to start their own streaming company with their own exclusive content, and it all went downhill from there. For example, I used to buy the season pass for Bob’s Burgers every year on iTunes. But last year Hulu bought the rights to the show and new episodes stopped appearing on iTunes mid-fucking-season. Apple gave me a full refund (which I had to explicitly ask for), but that doesn’t change the fact that the streaming wars are ridiculous.
Wait, I got carried away—this introduction was supposed to be about the good parts. iTunes is still a great option if you are willing to rent a movie for $5-$7 (this is how I watch most of the movies nowadays). According to Apple, they have more than 65,000 movies in their collection, and that’s pretty impressive (especially compared to everyone else). Blu-rays are great if you want high quality and ownership. I buy them often (usually in Ultra HD resolution), but I think they are too expensive for casual viewing.
Now let’s talk about how everything else sucks.
1. Too many streaming services
There are just way too many of them. In the beginning, I really tried to do the “right thing”: I subscribed to Prime Video to watch Tumbbad and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, but then I cancelled the subscription because nothing else there was worth watching. Same with Apple TV+: watched one season of Mythic Quest and Servant, then cancelled the subscription.
Some people are solving this by subscribing to everything—Netflix, Apple TV+, Prime Video, HBO Max, Disney+, Hulu, Paramount+. If this works for you, great! I don’t consider this a solution, though, not only because it’s incredibly inconvenient, but also because it’s indefensible from the financial standpoint. Monthly subscription to a service just in case some movie you want to watch appears there? No, thanks.
Others have one or two subscriptions and watch only the crap that is being offered there. That’s even worse: I don’t want to watch what big companies want me to watch—I want to have the control over how I spend my time. If I need to have AMC+ for Deadstream, Paramount+ for South Park, HBO Max for How to with John Wilson, and Hulu for Only Murders in the Building, I’ll respectfully pass and download the torrent instead.
2. Regional restrictions
My favorite TV shows in the last few years were all made in the UK. Want to watch Motherland, The Outlaws, Cunk on Earth, or Detectorists? Well, you can’t, unless you live in the UK. What about Penn & Teller: Fool Us? Tough luck, unless you are in the US. That documentary about the history of free jazz that you have been looking forward to for more than seven years? It’s finally available, but not for you. Google search might tell you to use a VPN to bypass the restrictions, but unless you know how to set up Tailscale, you will probably fall victim to some sketchy VPN provider.
3. Insane prices
Regular price for iTunes rentals is around $6. But if the movie has just started playing in theaters, its rental price is $20 (that’s ridiculously high even compared to the average price of a movie ticket in the US, which was $11 in 2022). Of course, you can wait a few months for the price to drop, but guess where the movie is available immediately, in the highest possible quality, for free?
4. Physical media issues
Remember those BBC TV shows I mentioned earlier? I loved them all so much, so I naturally wanted to buy the physical copies. Luckily, BBC are not monsters: they make their TV shows available on disks, too. But the type of these disks is… DVD? Last time I checked the century on my watch, it said “21st”.
Sometimes you get lucky and the movie you love is available on Blu-ray. But there is a catch: subtitles are only in German. Or Spanish. Or French. Or Italian. But not English. And it’s not as if no one could figure out how to translate the movie to this obscure language—English subtitles were available for years on DVD editions.
Another offender in the “how to treat the paying customers as unfairly as possible” category is Blu-ray region codes. Fortunately, Ultra HD Blu-rays are region-free, so at least someone in this industry is capable of making good decisions.
5. Shipping and customs fees
International shipping costs have been getting out of control ever since COVID-19 started. If you live in the EU, Brexit didn’t help, either. Few weeks ago I ordered a DVD from the UK, because no other option for watching the movie was available. DVD price? 10 EUR. Shipping costs? 10 EUR. And the cherry on top: my government decided to slap me with additional 10 EUR in customs fees. At this point, you are no longer supporting anything worthy—you are just throwing your money away.
6. FBI warning screen
This is not a big deal for me, but it perfectly illustrates how the whole industry is absolutely mental. Unskippable warning screen, threatening you with prison, but you see it only if you paid for the content? Every time I see one of these, I ask myself why do I even bother *sigh*.
If you take any example from this post in isolation, you will probably not be convinced
that piracy can ever be ok. But if you regularly deal with many of the problems I discussed, using
piracy gets more and more compelling. I’m very sad about this because I have always hoped for a
digital future where piracy wouldn’t be necessary, where every book, album, and movie ever created
would be just one click away from you. Although in some areas we are moving in the right direction,
in others we are taking huge steps back. There is still plenty of time to reverse that course, but
until that happens, piracy will not go anywhere.
Thanks to my editor and wife Milica Miljkov for making my incoherent ramblings more compelling.