How piracy is starting to change the world of television

By: Elin
On: March 17, 2013
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We all know we are not getting a legal copy of the music and movies we download with our torrent clients, yet we all still download them. It’s easy, and it’s free. Piracy seems to have flourished when the internet started becoming a norm instead of being a novelty. But as becomes clear from the book Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates that Adrian Johns wrote in 2009, piracy dates back until shortly after Gutenberg invented the printing press in the fifteenth century. Although Johns writes specifically about books, some of the text is also applicable to other media. Piracy in general has to do with a lot more media than just the book, even though the book may have been what it started with.

In reproducing a work, either a text, an image, a song, a movie or anything else, people have different purposes with piracy. Sometimes a work is pirated in order to change it, to do something creative with it. For example, there are young musicians who download and then remix music to create new music (Liang 2010, p. 358). This way piracy stimulates creativity.

Another version of illegally distributing a work is simply copying the original and getting it to the public. This way, “reading a piracy may be exactly the same as reading an authorized work” (Johns 2009, p. 12). Imagine having an illegal copy of a DVD – as soon as it’s in the DVD-player, you may not even see the difference between the original and your copy anymore. However, Johns also knows that piracy is as much a matter of reception as of production (2009, p.13). Now that we have access to everything through the internet, we consume ‘old’ media in a different form. This changes the way we perceive a product: a legal copy usually provides us with a better experience, often in terms of quality. With watching a series or movie online, the quality of the image is often not as good as on TV and subtitles are not always available. But we are willing to ignore that if we have quick and easy access, which we only get through illegal copies.

This simple copying of the original and distributing it is a form of piracy that can be subdivided into two categories: making something available because there is an actual need for it, and making something available because people want it. It is especially the association of piracy with the latter that led to objection (Liang 2010, p. 367). In the Netherlands this has led to preventing people from accessing The Pirate Bay, where media we consume in our leisure time are shared extensively. But piracy has led to more than a law where access to a web site is prohibited. One example is how it changes when and how we watch TV shows and movies – and not only because illegal copies are available for free. Often, foreign media products can be found online before they are available in our own country. This goes especially for television series. I watch a lot of them online before they are broadcasted on Dutch TV and I know I’m not the only one. There must be thousands of people here in Europe that watch American shows online as soon as they have been broadcasted in the USA and are put on the internet (illegally, yes). We prefer poor quality and long loading times over waiting until Dutch broadcasting companies finally play the shows that we want to see as soon as they are available. This means that by the time the Dutch channel Net5 airs the last season of Grey’s Anatomy (over three months (!) after it was broadcasted in the USA), they miss a lot of viewers who have already seen it online. And viewers are exactly what a television channel needs in order to exist.

This way the viewers as a social force are changing television broadcasting. Channels are starting to become aware of the fact that they need to provide us with the next episode of our favourite show not too long after it has been broadcasted in the USA. A good example is HBO, an originally American television channel that is available for Dutch television if you pay your provider for it. If you subscribe, you’ll be able to watch the newest episode of Game of Thrones just a day after it was broadcasted in the USA, in good quality and with subtitles. If you would watch it on the internet, you probably would have to wait a day too, to receive poor quality and no subtitles. HBO accepts that the wants and needs of the viewer have changed, thanks to piracy.  Now other television channels will have to follow HBO’s example to get the viewers away from the internet and back to their TVs.




Adrian Johns, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. 1-56.

Lawrence Liang, ‘Beyond Representation: The Figure of the Pirate’, in Gaëlle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski (eds) Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property, New York: Zone, 2010, pp. 353-375.

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