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BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: Illegal Downloading - Guilty Conscience

Doug Richardson talks about the issue of illegal downloading. Sure we've all snagged a tune or two, but where’s that guilty conscience?

Doug Richardson's first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder.Visit Doug's site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels.

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Guilty Conscience

Guilty Conscience...

Here’s the scene. I’m in a New York City deli with my immediate family and a passel of soon-to-depart Irish relatives. I’m eating a meal of pastrami and coleslaw and, amidst the conversation I’m having with my wife’s comely cousin, I decide to bite into her instead of my sandwich.

“So you understand,” I said, “that when your dear husband downloads movies, he’s taking money out of my pocket.”

That’s right. I’d said it directly to her adorably fresh-freckled face. My tone was righteous. My words, though intoned with only measurable distaste, were securely backed up by history and international law.

Ah. But there was a flaw in my argument. You see, I was the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. That’s because I too can be accused of such thievery.

There, I said it. I admit it. I’m a multiple offender. Does that affect your opinion of me? Have you made up your mind as to the quality of my character? Or are you curious enough to read on just to see if I’m able to remotely redeem myself.

So forgive me Father Megabyte and hear my digital confession:

I was an early adopter of all things MP3. Digital music files were so damn adorable. And so teeny tiny. The idea that I could fit all of the music I used to collect by the vinyl tonnage onto a device the size of a portable CD player was nothing less than a technological miracle. And downloading files to my computer was as not only easy, it was as addictive as bowl of bite-sized Krispy Kremes.

Then came Napster. Initially I used the service to reclaim what I’d already purchased. Sometimes more than once. Albums I’d purchased in junior high, and repurchased again once they’d been transferred to cassette or audio CD, I had no compunction about sucking it from the nether-nets to play on my newest, pre-iPod device. That, as you can imagine, led to another song here and there. Perusing other users’ catalogues in search of bands and sounds I’d never heard of became a new pastime. Napster was both a musical clearinghouse and an indie-paradise where I could browse from the newest to the arcane. I was in download love.

What soon followed was a gasbag of public hubbub and arguing over whether peer-to-peer file sharing via Napster was legal. Let alone moral. My beloved War Department argued that I was plain and simply copyright infringing. I argued back that all I was doing was “sharing,” and that the Supreme Court would one day prove me on the correct side of the issue. After all, they’d upheld the defenses against similar complaints. I fully expected those nine learned folks in black robes would stamp their cloaks of approval that music could and should be shared.

Music, I said. Not movies.

Okay. So stop getting so far ahead of me. We all know the court had a significant change of opinion on the nature of sharing once they got an eye-opening look at the oncoming tsunami that was digital downloading via the world wide web. Their decision might’ve killed Napster. But by then, Napster was already yesterday’s news and replaced by a conga-line of other file-sharing knock-offs. As well with faster processors, bigger and broader bandwidth delivery, and the ugly fact that just about every intellectual property could be reduced to a microbe-sized file, easily copied and uploaded to a giant fruit-like tree where everybody and anybody could find something ripe to watch or stream or pluck for their own personal use.

What had begun as “sharing” had quickly been re-labeled as “piracy,” producing mental images of brigands on fast boats, ambushing innocent pleasure crafts, stealing a man’s playthings and raping all women in sight.

Now. I really dig sharing. I’d been taught to share ever since I was a snotty little tot. Sharing is kind. Sharing is showing you care about others beyond your own selfish desires. Sharing is good for humankind.

But piracy. Hell. That is the devil’s work. A refuge of criminals and amoral minds.

Even worse, I was already a victim. My own movies were now going to be available for illegal downloading. Viewed at the mere click of a wireless mouse. And for free. Those residual checks I was so used to receiving were about to be worth less than the stamp on the envelope. I knew this to be true because, well, that’s exactly what the Lords of the Entertainment Biz were shouting from the Hollywood sign all the way to halls of Congress.

Then came the baby shower the War Department was throwing in New York City. We’d travelled from the West Coast while a large Celtic contingent had flown in from the old country. As you might expect, it was three days of family, meals, and because we’re all cursed Irish, well, some rather significant liquor tasting. On our last meal together, some stragglers gathered at an eastside deli for some goodbyes and hot brisket.

Seated next to my wife’s lovely cousin, I curiously inquired to why she’d been late to our last supper.

“I was buying some computer equipment for my husband,” she answered. “Much cheaper over here than in Dublin.”

“What kind of equipment?” I asked.

“I don’t know exactly. Stuff for downloading movies, I know. He’s really into that.”

“Downloading movies?” I asked.

“Films,” she confirmed, pronouncing films the Irish way, which is affectionately sounded out with a two-syllable fill-ums. “He especially likes the big Hollywood stuff.”

“So you understand,” I said, trying and miserably failing to sound less than incredulous, “that when your dear hubby downloads movies, he’s taking money out of my pocket.”

“…He is?” she asked, wondering if I was being as accusatory as I appeared.

“Anytime you download a movie without paying,” I said. “You’re stealing. Taking money out of some writer or director or actor’s pocket. That’s their living, their home mortgage, their children’s education, and you’re stealing from them.”

Initially, I was trying to be nothing more than argumentative. Placing my point front and center as if to say, there it is, now it’s your turn to defend yourself.

Instead, she just looked back at me in a sort of shocked surprise.

“And by you purchasing the equipment on your hubby’s shopping list,” I pounced, unable to control myself once I’d sampled her blood. “You’re the one driving the getaway car.”

There. With my point not-so-subtlety staked to her alabaster forehead, my cousin could do little more than summon forth a tumult of tears before she quietly shrieked and lurched from the table.

“What the hell did I say?” I shrugged to the rest of the family.

“You accused her of stealing!” snapped the War Department.

“I did not,” I defended. “I was just informing her that she was aiding and abetting an act of theft. Because she clearly didn’t know or fully comprehend the issue.”

“Sounded an awful lot like you accused her of being the thief,” pointed out my wife, who in many ways knows me better than myself.

In no time, a couple of other relatives were on their feet and out the door to assist. It was strongly recommended that I leave things be just so I might not make the situation worse. Which I would normally have agreed to if I could mentally erase the close-up freeze-frame of my dear Irish cousin bursting out in that crying cascade. Her pain was my doing. My arrogant fault. I had to fix it.

Moments thereafter, I was outside the deli, on the mid-town sidewalk, sincerely apologizing to that sweet lass. Not that I was backing off my thinking she was some sort of blindfolded getaway driver. But because of the obvious insensitive way I’d handled a family issue.

Firstly, I had no business accusing anybody of anything. When I was downloading songs off Napster it was an act of sharing. But when my good-natured cousin buys equipment so her husband can more seamlessly download copyrighted content, I’m jiminy-quick to brand it as not only theft, but akin to burgling my own damned house.

So where’s that guilty conscience today? Well, I must admit, it’s a bit confused. As a reader of these blogs, you’re aware that I do my damned best to adhere to certain standards, especially when I toil daily in a business with so many amoral characters. Technically, downloading intellectual property without permission or paying for it is a form of theft. Pure and simple. And despite some legalistic blame-throwing at the courts and their possibly unwise decisions, I really couldn’t create enough wiggle room in my conscience to totally alleviate my guilt.


There are some recent studies into the actual metrics involved with digital piracy that lead some rather wise bean counters to conclude that the illegal sharing is–in some quarters—responsible for an increase in revenue.

I could point you to the plethora of competing and compelling articles that are easily unearthed on the complicated matter. But put this retail factoid into your bong and light a match to it: Ever hear of a loss leader? It’s known as a freebie or an overtly-underpriced part of a product line a company offers as a way of exposing the buyer to something they might not otherwise purchase. It is a form of marketing to drum up further interest in content. And hell if it doesn’t work.

Well, in some measurable ways, that’s precisely how file sharing—or illegal downloads—might be operating in the true marketplace. As a form of advertising. Creating buzz. And that all-important, impossible to calculate, ultimate sales tool called word of mouth. Only it might be happening… by accident. The numbers are complicated. As well the opinions on how said calculations sort themselves into useable data. Still, it cannot be denied that what some would call copyright infringement has led to bonuses in box office.

Something to think about. In the meantime, I’ll continue to pay for the content I consume in order to sleep that much better. The rest is up to you.

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