The Slow Process of Legalization

In my younger days, I used to be a pirate. A hardcore pirate, in fact. My Bittorrent client would run for weeks at a time, gobbling up software, video games, movies and music. I was constantly burning copies for my friends, chipping their XBoxes, installing their software. I was “that guy” that people talked to whenever they wanted to see something, or had some media-related desire they couldn’t afford or didn’t want to pay for.

It felt pretty good to be that guy. It was a point of pride for so many people to depend on me. And I never felt particularly bad about it, either — after all, I couldn’t afford most of the stuff I was pirating, and would likely never pay for it even if I could. Media, to me, was disposable. The movies I really loved, I still bought, but truthfully, I purchased precious little other media.

It’s hard to say when things changed for me. Maybe it was a combination of seeing my friends lose their jobs en masse when the anime industry imploded, and remembering my roots as a collector. Slowly, over a period of years, I began to get more and more into collecting, and more and more interested in replacing my illegally gotten media riches with legal copies. Around the same time, DVDs started plummeting in price, making the purchase of these things a feasible option.

Cut to today, several years later, and I am now almost entirely “square”, as far as I can tell. I’ve bought so many DVDs and Blu-rays I can’t even afford the space to keep their cases around anymore. I didn’t exactly go through my MP3s and try to tell which I had acquired legally and which I hadn’t (there’s really no way to do that), but I buy pretty much every new song I acquire, if it’s available from iTunes or Amazon. I still have a pile of movies I ripped off of Netflix rentals years ago, but I consider those time-shifted rentals, and I’ll only watch them once before deciding if I want to buy them and then they get trashed. I also maintain a (gigantic) stash of anime that will probably never be available legally (but if they do come out, the “buy it or trash it” rule applies). I don’t play many video games, but I legally buy downloads from XBox Live these days.

That just leaves software. The real marvel, in my opinion, is how much software has been taken over by free/open source software. There was once a time where 75-90% of the stuff I used everyday was commercial stuff that I had to either buy or pirate. Now, it’s probably less than 10%, and if my standards were lower, it’d be even less.

It seems like nearly every piece of must-have software of yesteryear can now be replaced by something free or very very cheap. I’ve replaced Photoshop with the speedy and lightweight Pixelmator ($30!), legally bought Office for Mac (though I have OpenOffice.org on the laptop), and just paid to update to the 2011 version of iPhoto. CeltX for screenwriting, Audacity for light audio editing, iTunes for music.

But honestly, I barely had to spend much money at all. Must-have software like web browsers? FTP and IM clients? Video players and codecs? 100% free. Very nerdy things, like video compression, are now more or less owned by open-source solutions, which are often better than their commercial counterparts — some of which often cost in the thousands of dollars.

In fact, the only place where Open Source really falls down is in pro-level creative development. Video editing and compositing (Final Cut Pro/AVID/Adobe Premiere, Motion and After Effects), desktop publishing (Adobe InDesign), audio and music editing (ProTools/Logic/Live) and 3D rendering (Maya, etc.). For the foreseeable future, all of these things will continue to require giant, expensive software packages that cost more than most PCs.

I suppose that’s fair. Shelling out $3,000 for Blu-ray authoring software last year almost killed me, but using it professionally, it’s made me enough money to be well worth the investment. And that’s precisely what professional software should be, an investment.

But for the rest of us, who don’t do magazine layouts or video editing, who mostly just use PCs to browse the web, for e-mail, and an occasional paper or letter, there is simply no need to pirate anything. The free software is more than good enough. DVDs and BDs are cheap as hell. Music is still around 99¢ a track, and there are lots of ways to watch a stockpile of stuff without copying it. And now, free of all the hacks and cracks and ways around, I feel a huge sense of relief.

Piracy usually seems like the easy, lasy option, but the truth is that it’s never been easier to not be a pirate. And I gotta admit, it feels pretty good to live cleanly — a sense of satisfaction akin to quitting smoking or losing weight. But to those who aren’t ready to go 100% legit like I did, it’s hard to judge them too harshly. I was there once, I get it. But I think that, in the back of every pirate’s head, they know what they should do. But like smoking and power-eating, it can be a really really hard habit to break.

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4 responses to “The Slow Process of Legalization

  1. I heard you mention your site on anncast and figured I’d check it out. I had a similar experience of paying more attention about making sure everything I did was on the up and up as I’ve gotten older, and agree that it’s much easier to do so now than it was in the past.

    But one thing still gets in my way: digital copies. If I want to watch anime on my ipod touch offline or want to do so on my computer w/out lugging around DVDs my options are limited. I can either repurchase a digital version of everything I have (and even some of the anime on itunes isn’t available subtitled) or rip the DVD. Ripping the DVD may violate the DMCA and copyright law which would make me a pirate all over again.

    Do you find that this bothers you? Do you think its likely we’ll get anime w/ digital copies anytime soon? I think this is a case where morally I don’t feel like a pirate for ripping a DVD I purchased, but the law says otherwise.

    • I’m not all that concerned about the DMCA banning decryption — nobody pays attention to that, and people in professional settings even use DVD rippers all the time. All that law really does is make it possible to get ripping tools taken down. If I own the disc and I’m not making copies for other people, I really don’t think it’s anybody’s business if I rip it to iPhone format with Handbrake. So far every attempt to institute digital copies with DRM have been miserable failures, so I don’t see a legal option any time soon.

  2. That makes me feel a bit better, especially the fact that professionals do it too. It’d be nice if someone like Funimation came out and said what everyone was thinking, that it was okay instead of leaving people guessing. As is, even if the decryption is legit I think its still an open question whether fair use means you can make a personal copy.

    I’m a bit suprised that pros would rip from DVDs though, don’t they have higher quality digital files from Japan or elsewhere to use?

    • Most pros wouldn’t use the video from a DVD unless they really really had to. More often they’ll rip a disc to get at materials that weren’t properly archived or are lost, and need to be re-used. (A subtitle track, or a special feature, for example.)

      No DVD company will ever tell people, “hey! It’s OK if you rip our discs!” because that would be very very silly. There’s a big difference between being indifferent and outright endorsing what you’re doing, especially when your job is to speak for the chronically technophobic Japanese producers.

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