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2010-03-29 - 13:32:00 - by AlisonW - Topic: Meta: thoughts |

First off, before I get started, let me say quite clearly and absolutely that I do not hold with people downloading music and films illegally. There are proper outlets for such media and they mostly require payment, a portion of which goes to the performers and creators involved. I categorically consider them wrong. Saying "illegal" though is, I believe, going too far as such behaviour appears to me to be a civil, not criminal, matter.

However I believe that life is not so straightforward when it comes to certain other media available via the internet. There are, for instance, many 'radio stations' both narrowcast and broadcast available over the web. There are also many "watch again" services from the BBC iPlayer and Channel Four's '4OD' (On Demand) services in the UK through to NBC and other US broadcasters, each in their respective markets. There are also suppliers such as who provide something between the free-to-air and pay-by-the-month models.

Back when I was young and innocent I would watch a series on television and discuss it with friends in the playground or lecture theatre the next day. The only television available to us was that by the terrestrial broadcasters of the time; BBC and ITV. Even when Channel Four came along nothing much changed; we consumers weren't really aware of what happened outside our own country and it was many years before I, for one, realised how old some of the programmes were that I was seeing broadcast in the UK for the first time.

And it didn't matter.

But in the last ten to fifteen years things have greatly changed. Not just the more recent 'facebook generation' but those of us online during those fifteen years have made friends around the world, and chat and discuss things with them. And one of those things has often been our favourite television series.

In my case there have been some shows which I found I was reading friends' blogs – or even news reports – about what had happened in that week's instalment where we in the UK were still a season or more behind. And it isn't that one can – or should – stop interacting with friends, or ask them not to post their thoughts in case you might see it and be 'spoilered'.

So one is left with either an unacceptable option of retreating into some sort of shell, or considering whether to download the episode ahead of its broadcast in the UK (and remember that nearly everything worth seeing gets transmitted on free-to-air free-to-watch channels in the UK).

It isn't an easy decision, by any means. There are many considerations about whether getting to see something that you will get for free within some months – eg. Gossip Girl – or years – eg. Burn Notice – is necessary to not ruin the series for you. Of these, ITV2 now seems ahead of the USA on the first, and it doesn't bother me that the second is three years behind, so I'm happy to watch both on the television in the corner of my room.

But some years ago I was in this position with what I consider one of the top television programmes of all time. Aaron Sorkin's ' The West Wing'. Scheduling in the UK (on Channel 4 and its cable channels) meant one season was being broadcast at the same time as the succeeding one and, very clearly, not only would watching both spoiler me without any external interaction, but we were also somewhat behind my friends in the USA and elsewhere who, like myself, were deep in discussion about the series' storylines and arc.

So I torrented it to catch up.

And, whilst I admit that fact let me also add that I bought the DVD box sets for every season as soon as they became available (as well as re-watching it on UK television once it arrived here). No studio or artist lost out, indeed they profited over and above what they would have received had I solely watched it on the local services. I could also keep up with discussion online about the story arc of the show at the time it was happening. Even now I have an annual 're-watch all seven seasons from the start'.

And The West Wing isn't the only show this applies too. Buffy, Angel, Dark Angel, Firefly, and others too have seen me buy the DVDs once they are available.

So I'm left wondering what the answer is. Where a television programme is going to be available to me and everyone else in the country to watch for free, is there any actual financial loss incurred by anyone if I were to download it ahead of broadcast? I'm as likely to see the same advertisements, where the commercial channels are involved, and I pay my annual licence fee to the BBC and very happy to do so as it represents great value. I also pay for my bandwidth with (three) ISPs, and when I have occasionally torrented something more recently I do so after midnight so as to not disrupt other UK users.

The world is a globe now. It isn't a series of flat-earth countries each doing their own thing. Scheduling a week apart in different places is pretty acceptable, but longer causes problems to a great many people who aren't so blinkered as to ignore friends in the rest of the world. If there is no income reduction for keeping up to date – and possibly an increase from subsequent DVD sales – then should it be wrong at all?

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