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Arr, matey!

Two years ago last week, Underground Woman and I cut the cable for good. We had been paying Rogers a little over $200 per month for a mealy Internet plan, basic cable, and a Movie Network add-on we rarely watched for the ever more appalling quality of its titles.

(I don’t think it’s any coincidence that The Movie Network turned into utter shite soon after Rogers launched its competitive pay-as-you-go On Demand service. Or maybe in my middle years I’m becoming harder to please. Five premieres a week, all more or less of the Jackass variety? Pass.)

We assembled what eventually became a very creditable home media solution. At the time, it was piecemeal because most of our streaming equipment wasn’t sold in Canada and had to be purchased either in the States or on the grey market.

Today, our entertainment system is much more concise: three dual-band Roku 3 streaming players and a Plex personal media server, with network-attached storage, tethered to one beast of a dual band wireless router. Amplified over-the-air antenna for live local HDTV. Teksavvy Cable 35 ($51.95), Unblock-us.com ($4.99) to bypass those pesky country restrictions, Netflix ($7.99) and Hulu Plus (also $7.99) for a total monthly savings of roughly $130 or more than $1500 a year.

One thousand five hundred dollars in annual savings. Let that sink in for a moment. That’s a trip somewhere nice. That’s a tidy little TFSA contribution.

The entire solution is perfectly legal (even the unblocking service) and provides almost all the content Underground Woman and I choose to enjoy.

Almost all. There are shows on HBO, FX, Starz, AMC, and others that, because of their retrogressive licensing arrangements, can be had only with a cable television subscription. That is unacceptable. So we torrent them.

A torrent, or, more accurately, a BitTorrent, is a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol that reduces the server and network impact of distributing large amounts of data. It works by downloading a small descriptor file that connects your computer, via a BitTorrent client, to a swarm of other user computers. Members of the swarm simultaneously upload and download among themselves different pieces of the same file. This makes large file sharing more efficient and therefore faster. In the early days of broadband connectivity, this was an important way to bust networking speed limitations. These days, it’s more a means to other ends.

Because no one in your swarm distributes the entire file, which may or may not be protected by law, torrenting isn’t strictly illegal. But it isn’t legal, either. You can still be sued for distributing little pieces of someone else’s property. In fact, between 2010 and 2012, about one-quarter of a million Americans faced aggressive litigation from studios and their attack-dog legal teams.

If you’ve been closely following Voltage Pictures LLC v. TekSavvy, then you know that copyright trolls have finally landed in Canada, and that TekSavvy did not prevail. Up to 2000 Canadians may soon receive lawyers’ letters demanding court-supervised restitution of between $100 and $5000. I may be among them. If I am not, that time may ultimately arrive.

Clearly, this activity has a price. I was aware of it when I decided to torrent. It’s a risk I will continue to assume. If it comes to it, I will defend myself in court.

The experience of torrenting is like paying your first visit to a red light district. It’s definitely the seamier neighbourhood of the Internet. Torrenting websites make their money on ad share: you can only guess at the squalid come-ons they serve to their mostly male, mostly misanthropic malware peddlers and virus cookers. But there’s also a very serious cinephilic subculture to tap into: one that knows the value of recording quality; that has a code of conduct and understands the necessity of their legally questionable pastime.

I say “necessity” because the entertainment industry must change its delivery model. The only way that happens is when the market moves on without it.

I will happily pony up for any film worth seeing in a theatre. I will, absolutely, cop to the expense of a monthly content subscription, if it isn’t extortionate. So far, Netflix and Hulu Plus are very reasonably priced and I’m happy with the value I receive.

If HBO offered a streaming service that didn’t demand an overblown cable television contract, I’d buy it. Same goes for AMC, FX, and those other networks. But they don’t. My home delivery requirements have changed, and they aren’t keeping up. So I think it’s time to apply pressure.

I won’t torrent content that I can legally acquire by other reasonable means. I don’t steal music or software or video games.

I do torrent “For Your Consideration” films. These files come directly from within the industry. I suspect their distribution to a small cadre of technically-proficient and socially networked enthusiasts serves some higher business agenda.

I also torrent True Detective, the Walking Dead, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and my weekly favourite, Real Time with Bill Maher. That’s my personal fuck-you to an industry aided by robber barons, lobbyists, and copyright trolls, and abetted by the clueless policy wonks at CRTC.

A decade ago, record companies discovered it’s more profitable to hawk singles at $0.99 per download than to sue customers for deserting the shrinkwrapped CD. They arrived at that come-to-Jesus moment when Napster rendered their delivery model obsolete and Apple rewrote the money end of their business.

Studios need a similar wake-up call. I do not recommend torrenting copyrighted content. It’s on the wrong side of the law, and there’s the very real danger you might accidentally install some nasty bit of code disguised as 12 Years a Slave.

But it’s definitely a statement. Studios need to remove and not erect consumer barriers to their products. Until those walls come down, they’ll have to sue me for their due.

  • Jerry

    You mention that HBO and others do not have streaming services. Have you considered purchasing log-in details from a US cable subscriber so that you could use Roku’s HBO Go app (along with many other apps such as Watch ESPN)? There are sites that hook up buyers and sellers just for this purpose. I pay $15/month (via paypal) that gives me access to tons of content through the apps I mentioned above, as well as the Xfinity Go app. I think I get a lot of value out of my $15.

    • Patronized

      That’s a very interesting suggestion. I’ll look into it. Thanks, Jerry.

      • Jerry

        No problem. If you need any help in your search, please let me know. I’d be happy to help. It was a great discovery for me a few short months ago.

        BTW, I just found your blog and it’s great! We have a lot of common interests and the information you post is really useful.

        • Patronized

          That’s very kind of you to say so. Many thanks for the offer.

    • SammyMaudlin

      I would love to know more about this. I cut the chord 3 years ago when I moved to southern Ontario (the ota channel selection is quite good compared to the rest of the country). I used to enjoy streaming espn3 until they added that cable provider log in bullshit.

  • SammyMaudlin

    I am fairly technologically inept. Whatever I can’t get from Netflix/UnblockUs, I stream from websites which provide episode links. I have been using one in particular for a couple of years now. The pq is usually quite good watching from a laptop or tablet. This is how I get my HBO, AMC, FX programming. I’m terrified of downloading anything so torrents are out.

  • Jean Sutherland

    If you are a lover of documentaries, then you should check out MVGroup. They offer an amazing array of good documentaries for download. http://mvgroup.org and go to latest releases. You will have to join but membership is free.