Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed out

Corporate piracy unearthed with buried treasure



"Yes I am a pirate,

Two hundred years too late."

- Jimmy Buffett


Arrrgh, matey, not necessarily. Depends on what it is ye wish to plunder. I have met the enemy on the high seas of digital piracy and he is me... and more than likely, you.

Pirates, it seems, are everywhere. Not the small boat, large gun, Somali kind of pirates, the ones with wet feet and salt crust. But the ones who plunder virtual loot. Music, movies, television shows, what have you.

Personally, I'm not comfortable with the epithet. I don't feel like a pirate. I've never invaded someone's space, never threatened them at sabre point, never swung my hook at them, made them walk the plank, keelhauled them or let my parrot bite their nose. It's the oily guys in the slick suits who work for multinational music and film companies who toss the word around with such, how shall I put this, familiarity. Brotherhood even.

They're the ones calling me a pirate because I've stumbled across websites where other people have posted files for me to download and I've occasionally obliged their kindness. I find it ironic the guys crying "Pirate!" are the ones who want to slap a new $75 tax on every digital music player anyone buys. Jeesh, why don't they just don an eyepatch and a pegleg.

I'm not proud of my piracy, but I came to it honestly. As a wee cabin boy, I stole music off the radio by crudely recording it onto a reel-to-reel tape recorder. When I learned a bit about electronics, I became a poster child for the cliché about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing by soldering wires onto the tonearm of my parents' hi-fi and patching them into the recorder. Now I could make copies of their records of Broadway musicals, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand and sing alone in the privacy of my bedroom. I lost interest in that period of piracy when puberty hit and I discovered I wasn't gay.

The parrot was on my back again when eight-tracks came along. Scoff if you wish but that breakthrough technology meant we could, for the first time ever, listen to exactly what we wanted to hear in our cars while making out. If copying my own records made me a pirate, so be it. Because let's be honest, nothing spoils the moment like music ending and some irritating radio announcer telling you this is only a test. When you're 17, rounding third base and being waved home, that ain't no test; it's the real thing... and Led Zep was the appropriate soundtrack.

Cassettes opened up vast new seas to loot and pillage. The tape quality was much better than eight-tracks and the recorders incorporated things like Dolby noise reduction, a technology most suited to pirating music. In the waning days of cassettes, I began to have qualms about what I was doing. Like a junkie who couldn't stop, I'd visit a store in Toronto that rented CDs and sold blank tapes. I think it was the sign above the blank cassette display reminding people it was illegal to make tapes of rented CDs that both worried and confused me. Just what was the message here?

But all that looks like child's play compared to the brave new world of compressed files and the lawlessness of the Internet. For a long time, I avoided wading into those pirate-infested waters. My reluctance was theoretically based on a snobbish dismissal of the mp3 file format. Taking a bazillion byte feast from a CD and compressing it into a two-bite slider obviously left a lot of music on the table. How jejune, how anti-audiophilic.

The real reason - it turned out - had more to do with having dial-up Internet instead of highspeed. I resisted broadband for as long as I could, which is to say for as long as one of my neighbours had an unlocked wi-fi signal I could pira... er, poach.

But my piracy was punk until, well, it's Microsoft's fault. Or Apple's. Certainly not mine. Let's not lose sight of the fact that I'm the victim here.

I was perfectly happy playing honestly purchased - okay, frequently copied - CDs and the very rare download on my Windows media player. No harm; no foul. Until I accidentally downloaded the latest version a little over a year ago. In keeping with the robust spirit of Windows Vista, that piece of software was a piece of sh... er, junk. Play two songs, crash. Reboot. Play two songs, crash.

In desperation I turned to iTunes. I'd resisted iTunes, iPods, iEverything because I was an iNothing kind of guy and everyone I knew in the throes of the Cult of Apple seemed to have a latent streak of Moonie about them. Not understanding iTunes any more than I understand any program, I let it suck up all the music on my hard drive. I was appalled when it automatically converted all the big files into teeny, tiny mp3 files. I was even more appalled when I couldn't hear any difference.

With the last vestige of snobbish resistance lost to aging ears, the floodgates opened. I hoovered all my CDs into iTunes. It wasn't enough. I spent hours, days, weeks digitizing old vinyl and cassette tapes, in some cases creating third generation piracy. The convenience was seductive. Shuffle delivered gems of nearly forgotten music I'd never have selected but relished hearing. Like a junkie with the shakes, I craved more.

Out of respect for artists, okay out of fear of prosecution, I still resisted blatant piracy. Until I tried to be legit and ran headlong into the stonewall of modern corporate music. Trying to purchase a display license last January to show a Pink Floyd DVD to raise funds for a local charity, a company who shall remain nameless - Hint: their initials are Sony/BMG - so thoroughly pissed me off with their runaround, indifference and ultimate denial that I abandoned my last redoubt of decency and embraced my inner pirate.

Not longingly though. The whole idiocy of record companies bringing million dollar suits against pimply teens who share music is annoyingly scary. Especially when they win. They say justice is blind. What they don't generally say is she's deaf, stupid and frequently in the back pocket of the men with bags of money, hearts of stone and ethics that'd make old-timey pirates shudder in revulsion. In other words, music companies.

So I bob along the seven seas occasionally wetting my toes in the music of some new artist I hope will keep me from sliding into the quagmire of old farts listening exclusively to ancient music. Hell, sometimes I even buy what I find I like.

Yes I am a pirate too, Jimmy. But I still don't like the word.