Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Start, Thief!

Over the past week, when I've mentioned to several people that I didn't see The Sopranos finale because I don't have HBO, almost uniformly I've been told that I should get it off BitTorrent. Some tell me this because they're just trying to be helpful, but some…some are downright irritated about my failure to do so. Like I'm doing something wrong by not illegally downloading a TV show.

There are two main reasons I don't download TV shows on my computer. The main one is that I don't like to watch TV shows on my computer. I watch TV with my wife, and I like to work on my computer while I'm watching TV, so setting up something to play on my tiny laptop screen doesn't sound that appealing. I don't even like playing YouTube clips if they're more than five minutes long. And while I know it's possible–through a series of hacks–to transfer video from my computer to my DVR so that I can watch it on my TV, the process is way too complicated, and can potentially compromise both the functionality and the warranty of that DVR. So that's out.

But if it were safe and easy to download a movie or TV show and send it to my DVR to watch on my big ol' HDTV, would I? Hard to say. Broadcast TV would be tempting, because those programs are free in the first place, and a lot of the nets put them up on their sites for no charge. But pay TV? I don't know that I'd have the guts. I don't downloaded music illegally either, for much the same reason. It's not that I'm morally opposed to it so much as that I'm terrified of getting caught, or of screwing my computer up in the process.

Of course I am a little morally opposed. I want the bands I like and the filmmakers I like to be able to make a living, and I'll frequently buy a CD even when a friend offers to send me the tracks. But I can't be fully morally opposed, lest I be an utter hypocrite. Because sometimes I do take those tracks when they're offered–most often when it's an album I've been assigned to review and I can't get a publicist to send me a CD in time. I once went round-and-round with a publicist who refused to send me a hard copy of an album, but instead kept sending me links to a site where I could stream it–straight stream, no pausing or rewinding–and even those links were only good for a day before expiring. Finally I gave up and got a colleague with an illegal download to e-mail me the tracks. (That was a couple of years ago. These days, I'd use IM.)

But sometimes I'll accept a friend's offer to send me audio files just because I don't want to buy a record that I know I'm probably only going to listen to once and then salvage for its best three or four tracks. And I frequently loan CDs to friends with the understanding that if they like them, they'll burn them. Heck, if someone downloaded The Sopranos's final episodes, burned them onto a DVD and gave them to me, I'd probably be grateful, and watch without a second thought. So I'm definitely not squeaky-clean. I'm very familiar with that old Winston Churchill line: "We've established what you are my dear, now we're just haggling over the price."

Still, I don't entirely get why people are so eager for me to use BitTorrent. Maybe it's the same reason I'm more comfortable hanging around with meat-eaters than vegetarians. It makes me feel like less of a chump if we're all sinning together. If everyone's breaking the law, it makes the crime seem less egregious. We all go over the speed limit, right, if traffic is flowing that way?

I know everybody hates the "what do you think?" blog-entry-conclusion cliché, but I honestly want to know: Who's swiping content out there? And if you're in that camp, do you try to get everything you can for free? Or are there limits?

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