Honour among thieves: the only way to get the best selection of television shows and movies is to steal them

Honour among thieves: the only way to get the best selection of television shows and movies is to steal them

(Image: Andrew B. Myers)

My wife and I have cut the cord. Instead of a cable TV subscription, we have a laptop, which is connected to our flat screen LCD television, which we control while lying in bed with a little remote I bought for $19 at the Apple Store. Through this clunky rig we plow through entire seasons of HBO shows in mere days. We watch new episodes of 30 Rock, minus the ads, on the night they air. When we watch a movie, it’s often a new release, still playing in theatres. Sometimes we watch a movie weeks before it hits theatres. If a friend recommends an obscure old film to me over a beer, I’ll look it up on the spot with my Android. Then, with a touch of my finger, it will be waiting for me at home, in high definition.

You may consider me to be a pirate who refuses to pay for his entertainment. That would be half-right. I do pirate the things I watch, but I also pay for them. I just pay the wrong people.

Each month, a U.S.-based company called Giganews charges $14.99 to my Visa card. This fee allows me to access something called Usenet (an online network similar to e-mail or Web forums), which sends me video files at blistering download speeds. I used to avoid piracy, mostly because it was inconvenient. Speed and selection were spotty, files would arrive grainy or in low resolution or with Norse dubbing. But the files I get through Giganews are carefully labelled and the selection is vast. I can even subscribe to my favourite shows so they’ll download automatically. The result is nothing short of amazing—a personalized television service that lets me watch exactly what I want at any time I like and on any screen I own. I no longer watch lousy shows just because they happen to be on.

Giganews isn’t exactly illegal, but it isn’t exactly legit either. It relies on the “common carrier” defence, meaning it’s merely the conduit through which users connect to a public archive where anyone can upload or download whatever they want—mostly copyrighted material. One thing I can be sure of: Giganews doesn’t share my money with the people who make the things I watch.

If they did, I’d be willing to pay more. In fact, I’d pay double. Maybe even triple, just so that if I ever met Tina Fey in person, I could look her in the eye with a clear conscience. But no legitimate service offers what Giganews offers—for any price. If I signed up for the best cable TV package Rogers provides, which costs $169.84 a month, I would get access to less content, and I would wait longer to get it—no more watching a movie at home while it’s still in theatres. The only way to get the largest selection, the highest resolution, the fastest downloads and the newest releases is to steal.

Now, if I were living in the U.S., I would have access to legitimate services like the ad-based TV and movie site Hulu, and for-pay services like Amazon Video on Demand, Blockbuster on Demand, iTunes TV rentals, and the original version of Netflix, which offers a healthy selection of shows and movies. Between a Netflix subscription and various rental fees, an American with my viewing habits can sidestep cable, without becoming a criminal, for about $30 a month. But in Canada, all of these video services are “geoblocked”—visitors with Canadian IP addresses are weeded out and denied access. We now have a Canadian version of Netflix, but its library is a poor cousin of the original, with less desirable shows that tend toward the obscure (fans of Animal Planet’s River Monsters are in luck). Canadians are unable to rent TV episodes from iTunes, and instead must “buy” them at three times the price (Americans can watch this week’s Simpsons for 99 cents; we pay $3.49). Our own TV networks offer some streaming video online, but not much, and always through their decidedly lousy and hard-to-navigate Web sites. Again: if we want to have the most current and convenient selection, we have to steal it.

So why can’t we get decent, legitimate Internet-based TV in Canada? The big telecom companies blame the sorry situation on licensing complications. Securing the digital rights for the Canadian market is a slow and costly process, but if we’re patient, they say, Canada will catch up eventually.

The truth is, there is little incentive for Canada’s television industry to get with the times. Canadian broadcasters choose to lag behind, and deliberately sit on the digital rights that are often thrown in by distributors who sell them broadcast rights to movies and TV shows. After all, why should a station like CityTV help Canadians watch 30 Rock on demand via a $7.99 Netflix-like subscription when we could watch it through a $64 cable subscription to Rogers, its parent company? Why not instead shun and starve upstarts like Netflix, or, better yet, actively sabotage them?

Recently, Rogers did just that. Two days after Netflix Canada was announced, Rogers drastically lowered customers’ monthly download caps. A popular plan offering 25 gigabytes of data was cut back to 15 gigs (roughly eight hours of HD video streamed through Netflix). By contrast, the giant American Internet provider Comcast provides 250 gigs under its cheapest plan. So while Netflix may seem a bargain to Canadians at $7.99 a month, if you’re on a 15-gig plan, once you’ve watched four movies you’ll pay $8 or so more per movie in “overage” fees—twice what it might cost you to rent a DVD. This could easily kill Netflix in Canada before it gains a foothold, and scare potential newcomers away from our market permanently. These are the kind of things that happen when your broadcaster and your cable company and your Internet provider are all the same guy. In a word, the problem in Canada is competition—or, more accurately, our lack of it.

The folks at Rogers think that customers actually like having all of their telecom services consolidated. I asked David Purdy, vice-president of Rogers Video and former son-in-law of the late Ted Rogers, whether Canadians would be better served if his company were broken up. “Preposterous,” he said. “People want to have one billing relationship with one player.” Purdy insists that the cutting of data limits to 15 gigs had nothing to do with Netflix entering the market—it was a complete coincidence. I asked how Rogers justified charging customers as much as $5 per extra gig of data when the hard cost was reported by the Globe and Mail to be about three cents. Again he used the word preposterous to denounce the Globe’s estimate, but when I asked him for the real figure, he said, “I don’t have it with me, but if you want, we can have that conversation.” We never did, because it turns out Rogers won’t disclose the numbers, for “competitive reasons.”

The CRTC is supposed to regulate our telecom sector and prevent monopolies from forming, but it recently approved Shaw Communications’ purchase of Global TV, as well as consolidating acquisitions by Rogers and Cogeco. (A BCE–CTV megadeal is also imminent.) Most famously, the CRTC approved usage-based billing, resulting in an online consumer backlash that, by February, had become something of a phenomenon. The ruling would have allowed Bell (the applicant in the case) to jack up the wholesale rental fees it charges to the small Internet service providers who are supposed to be a competitive alternative to the big guys. But after more than 400,000 Canadians signed a petition, Stephen Harper stepped in to ask for a review.

It was a victory for the consumer, but one that hardly matters. Indie Internet providers barely make a dent in Canada. Stunted at every turn by their mammoth competitors, they collectively comprise only six per cent of the market. Petitions aren’t enough. But piracy might be.

A widespread embrace of the underground market may be the only form of protest to which our telecom masters will respond. Consider it an act of consumer disobedience—sort of like buying bootleg cigarettes. Rather than continuing to pay some of the highest cable and Internet rates in the free world for some of the crappiest service in the free world, we abandon cable TV en masse and leech free video through the Internet until we are offered a fair deal.

It may sound crazy, but piracy has already pushed markets toward innovative solutions. The Napster-era question “How can we compete with free?” was answered by Steve Jobs. It seems you can compete with free by making music easy to find and buy, and by pricing it at 99 cents a song. At a certain point, piracy just isn’t worth the effort to most, and Apple has sold more than 10 billion songs through its iTunes music store. If a sharp turn to piracy scares our media monopolies badly enough, they will compete with it by making online TV an affordable and viable option.

Does the desire for better television justify theft? Perhaps not, but this is about more than our nation’s channel-surfing habits. Canada’s backward telecom sector also isolates us from new gadgets. Walk into a Best Buy in Buffalo and you’ll find that 3-D TVs are already old news. Internet connectable and “smart” TVs are the new vanguard. Sony is now selling Google TV—a hardware and software mash-up that seamlessly turns online video into searchable television. But Google TV is unavailable in Canada, and won’t be coming any time soon. Why would it? There wouldn’t be much to watch on it.

Now, you may say that stealing is wrong. And I say, yes, you’re right, it is—but must we be fundamentalists about it? There are different kinds of stealing, and on my moral spectrum, pirating videos from the Internet lies somewhere between snacking on a Jelly Belly at the bulk food store and stealing cars. Toy cars.

Of course, there is our reputation to consider. Do we really want to be known as a rat’s nest of thieves and bootleggers, a pirate’s haven like China and Pakistan? Or would we prefer to retain our standing as a polite and patient nation of compliant consumers, gladly accepting second-rate services at twice the price?

It’s a no-brainer. I’d rather be a thief than a sucker.