Downloading TV Shows

By Deane Barker on August 15, 2004

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.

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  1. I agree with you there. The only thing in my case is that I live in Ireland. Shows are aired a few months later than in the US. So I spend my time downloading my favourite shows (That 70s Show, Scrubs, etc), and watch them before they are even aired over here.

    The only way that we are hurting the TV is that we are giving false ratings to the TV companies. I love scrubs, but I dont watch it on TV. Im sure there are many more people over here in the same boat. So then RTE thinks we dont like scrubs and cancels it. Then the people who watch it on TV can’t watch it.

    Wait,…I,…We….They….Ugggh. I think I made my piont.

  2. Well written

    I have a tv which can split screen so I never watch the commercials. I also tape a good many things off of SpeedTV and watch them after because it takes less time since I can skip al the commercials.

    IMHO, and looking into my fogged crystal ball, when HDTV becomes the only feed, expect them to do everything in their power to stop “legal time shifting”. The media companies have been against this from the start even though VHS movie sales made them billions and would rather run the same show 3 times to cover all the times zones then to allow people any , and I mean any , type of control over their prized content.

  3. Hey this was very well written I was wondering where would I go if I wanted to download a certain show how would I do that thanks

  4. As an addendum to this discussion, I just received a letter from my ISP and the MPAA stating that they do, in fact, consider the downloading of TV shows to be naughty, and that they would like it very much if I knocked it off. I only download two shows a week, so I don’t think I was targeted as a major infringer.

  5. They really have no way of knowing that it is U, when you download something from a bittorrent, or bittorrent like site. the MPAA will copy down your IP address and contact your isp. your Isp will then send you a warning message, I got a couple of em, scared the hell outa me the first time:P, but after reading up on it i found that there is nothing they can do to me. (i live in canada so mabey i’m just lucky, hehehe)

  6. When trying to download a movie from the extension file type won’t work what do you type in for the last three letters

  7. All the mpaa are trying to do are scare us away, As long as the VCR is legal and is sold with that red REC button, I don’t see the diffrence between downloading the shows that will be repeated anyway(to death I might add)

  8. I TOTALLY agree…Anything on TV should be considered “free media”…Now I can understand the issue with MP3’s, Movies, and software….But MP3’s can be a contradictory issue because back when I was kid, you could tape a song you liked when the radio played it and there was no problem with it…But movies and software..I could completely understand the laws there…But TV shows and TV movies should be ok…..Does anyone know if music videos are a no no? Technically, you watch these videos from a ste..AOL, Yahoo, etc..and you can find the files in your “temp folder” so you could download these things and not even know it.

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