Having been a child of the home computer boom of the early 1980s and then worked with computers for many years, I can’t help but sigh every time a new campaign to reduce piracy comes into effect.
It’s the same now that the UK government’s new rules on piracy are coming into force — human nature will always win.
Internet users in the UK will now be sent warning letters if they have been accessing illegal material, such as copyrighted films or music. But crucially, if they choose to carry on downloading, there is nothing the government can do about it.
But even if you aren’t worried about legal repercussions, piracy is a mug’s game.
As a somewhat spotty teen, I was an avid computer enthusiast. I learnt to program many different dialects of Basic before I was 16. But it must be said, while programming was fun, playing games was equally (if not more) entertaining. I amassed a large collection of software titles during my time owning a ZX Spectrum.
Coming from a family with very modest means, I couldn’t have every game I wanted. The solution was, for a time, tape-to-tape: copying software on the only cassette format available.
But as software providers started to understand how to stop this, more elaborate protection methods evolved. These included using programs that could run tape in blocks into the computer’s memory before sending the data back to a blank cassette.
I was aware that I was depriving the games developers of royalties, but my teenage mind didn’t really consider how this might be detrimental. How many of us have not taken a copy of a DVD, video, MP3 or software application without thinking about what it might actually mean?
Unlike the 1980s, we now live in a world in which Internet speeds are capable of delivering large movies in minutes.
As the Internet became accessible to all in the 1990s, services such as Napster solved the dial-up dilemma and created peer-to-peer file sharing applications that would harness the distributed power of everyone’s computers together. Napster is now a legitimate service, after its founders lost a legal action in 2000.
But by this point, the proverbial Internet cat was out of the bag. Other services such as Grokster, BitTorrent and Kazaa had worked out how it was done and stepped in to fill the void left by Napster.
With these services on offer and legal versions emerging all the time, our consumption of media has completely changed. Many of us won’t be able to remember the last time we bought a DVD or CD. The reality is that many of us are now consuming media online.
With just a little casual research, it’s easy to find a site that will give you the film or TV show you are looking for, but each comes with risks. When I had my ZX Spectrum, all we worried about was making a copy that did not work. Now, when you dabble in piracy, you face all kinds of malware threats and risk coming across some rather unsavoury pornographic pop ups.
Will you be caught?
To issue warning notices, Internet service providers need to catch you downloading pirated media. This isn’t difficult. They know the sites and they can see the network traffic and know the address used by your home router. Even if you use the Tor network, deep packet inspection can reveal what you’ve downloaded at or at least provide clues about what it is.
Often it doesn’t even take detective work like this. ISPs would prefer not to rifle through your data packets, but often all they need to do is take note of when someone has been greedy and has downloaded a large quantity of media. From there, it’s easy to tell the difference between Netflix and a torrent site.
And with so many free or low-cost services available, I would argue that piracy just isn’t worth the risk of the malware and scams you could come across.
Unlike my teenage self, I now appreciate the effort behind the artistic endeavours of many of these movies and MP3s that are then pirated. As their respective industries feel the loss of revenue endured by piracy, they will apply legal pressure, forcing ISPs and website providers to take control of the content they make available.
That said, unless there is total control of the Internet, people will always pirate.
Even if the letters being sent out to infringers did lead to actual legal action, the piracy problem would not be solved. Many have the basic technical skills needed to continue to access content. But they should consider that there are other dangers involved.
- Andrew Smith is lecturer in networking at the Open University in the UK
- This article was originally published on The Conversation