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Were We Raised to be Pirates?

Updated on August 21, 2015

It's no surprise that many of us are inclined to illegally download music and video files from the Internet. We won't if we can help it, but the industry hasn't been as vigilant with their legal releases as they have been with their take-down notices. Who among us hasn't recorded their favorite shows to VHS before the age of DVR? Who hasn't recorded their favorite songs off the radio or tape-recorded audio from either source? When done online today, these activities are considered illegal when they existed in a moral gray area when we (and technology) were younger.

No one thought twice about setting their VCR to record back in the day, much like the DVRs of today. The difference is that the DVR saves video on a hard drive that needs to be erased when it gets full so you can keep recording. In the old days, we could just keep buying VHS tapes if we didn't want to lose what we'd already recorded, which is technically piracy. Most of the time, this was a temporary measure until the official home release came out, but we can't always depend on that these days. Even when VHS was first introduced, rebroadcasts were not aired and home videos were not thought profitable, so home-recorded copies were the only ones that still existed (as some studios went so far as to destroy or erase their own film reels - looking at you, Doctor Who). The fact of the matter is that more people would support the official release if it was made more easily available to them and only use the Internet as a preview system to see if they actually want to invest the money (online reviewers help with this too, just so you know). For those who couldn't invest the money and wanted to catch up on a show that they missed (because they didn't have a VCR or tapes or whatever), people circulated the tapes among their friends.


The same can be said for audio. In the 80s, people would often make mixtapes and give them as gifts to each other. This continued into the era of Napster until it was shut down for copyright infringement. As long as songs are downloadable for ninety-nine cents apiece from iTunes or Amazon, this practice can still go on fairly reasonably. Other instances include tape recording audio from radio or TV and playing it back later, often over and over. Those with small children would do this to entertain and appease them when the original source material wasn't readily available, especially at bedtime. I still have such a tape from my childhood; this treasured time capsule is what inspired me to keep making mixtapes well into my adult years. I feel like this should be acceptable for home use, but the Internet has complicated matters in yet another way.

The problem with the Internet and copyright laws is that instead of a few close personal friends in a physical social circle, the whole world is the audience, and your friends might not live close by. Sharing such files with such a wide audience is tantamount to piracy, which is why Napster got the cease and disist. Some distinctions should be made between bootlegging and piracy: video taping a movie in a theater is wrong because it has just come out; sharing home-released content that you have already paid for is slightly less wrong depending on how you're using it. I'd suggest we rely on net neutrality until the laws can catch up to the technology, but that's been under attack too. The concepts of fair use and public domain have also been thrust into a moral gray area. For example, I first learned about YouTube as a teaching tool in college. However, when I tried to make a video to teach people about the history of the U.S. Presidents, it got taken down for copyright infringement because I used patriotic instrumental music. I've even heard that it's illegal to sing "Happy Birthday" in public and that new songs have had to replace it. What is happening to this country?

In conclusion, fair compensation may be the law of the land, but it should only go so far. Capitalism has sunk its fangs deeper than it should have into the home market. If we can't used what we've paid for to educate and entertain our friends far and near, then fair use is but a pipe dream overruled by a desire for more money. There is more money to be had in making content available at reasonable prices in formats that are accessible by everyone. The 80s may have raised us to be pirates, but you can't throw an entire generation in jail without it turning into the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean 3, and that's bad business.



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