Update: After reading this post, read the follow-up here.
Let’s say I have a meeting on Monday nights during the time that Fox’s awesome guilty pleasure, “North Shore,” is on. I don’t have a VCR anymore, so I can’t tape it. And I don’t have a Tivo either. What am I to do?
Well, I can download the show. There are any number of P2P clients out there with which you can get a perfect, full-screen, letterboxed, high-definition, stereo-sound copy of any TV show. An hour-long show will download in anywhere from one to a few hours, depending on the time of day. It’s very practical to download a show you missed.
So, let’s say I download and watch “North Shore.” Have I broken any laws? It’s not like I stole anything — I’m a paying cable TV subscriber and I have the cancelled checks to prove it. I could have watched the show for free if I was home during the time it aired. Additionally, if I had a VCR, I could have taped it and gotten the same effect — watching the same show at a different time.
This is called “time shifting.” There was a Supreme Court decision back in 1979 about the VCR in which the Court ruled that taping a show and watching it later was legal — the user was simply “shifting the time” in which he or she watched the show. Here’s a note from the Museum of Broadcast Communication:
Handing down its decision in October 1979, the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of Sony, stating that taping off air for entertainment or time shifting constituted fair use; that copying an entire program also qualified as fair use; that set manufacturers could profit from the sale of VCRs; and that the plaintiffs did not prove that any of the above practices constituted economic harm to the motion picture industry.
(The term “time shifting,” incidentally, is where The Shifted Librarian draws its name.)
The only way I can see that someone got short-changed is that I didn’t watch any commercials (on most posted versions, they’ve been edited out). So, this is a drag for the advertisers, but here’s the thing: I don’t watch commercials anyway. I’m a quick-draw on the remote when a commercial comes on. I channel surf until they’re over. Or I get up and go to the bathroom,or get something to drink, or finally listen to what my little girl has been deperately trying to tell me since the last commercial. Additionally, if I taped the show with a VCR, I’d fast-forward through the commercials.
I think the content type matters. I very much put TV shows in a different league than downloading a movie for which I would normally have to buy a ticket, or music for which I’d have to buy a CD. I pay for cable, so in my mind, I’m entitled to watch the show whenever I want.
I also draw a distinction between distributing a show and receiving a distribution. I’m perfectly entitled to receive a distribution — that’s what I do whenever I watch TV. However, you have to be careful with your P2P client because there’s a good chance you could be distributing it as well, especially if you use a BitTorrent client or have it in a shared folder for something like Kazaa.
If you proactively distribute the show — make it available to others who may not be cable TV subscribers in a position to watch it for free on TV — then you may be guilty of something.
At the risk of sounding combative, who are the TV stations to decide when I have to physically plant myself in front of the TV? I put up with cable rate increases every year, so I’ll watch the show whenever I please, thank you very much.
The bottom line, in my mind, is that I pay for cable TV. I’m just not home when the show I want to watch is aired. Am I over-simplifying this? Am I just trying to rationalize something? I’m torn.