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Location: New Mexico

Publications: Japji Sahib: The Song of the Soul by Guru Nanak translated by Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa. Anand Sahib: The Song of Bliss by Guru Amar Das translated by Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa. Available through www.sikhdharma.org.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Confessions of a Pirate

Computers. Boys. Since I was a teenager, those two things have had this strange connection in my life. I liked the geeks in high school. When I was a teenager, Apple was just getting started with home computers. Black screen. Flashing green curser. Minimal graphics. The phone modem had a certain multi-tonal quality to it. Different melodic intervals depending on where you were in the connecting process. And if you had call-waiting on your telephone, and someone called when you were connected to the Internet, you lost the connection.

This was before the World Wide Web. Back in the days of bulletin boards and group chats. The geeks hanging out together talking about geeky things. Those were the days of ground being broken and rules being created. One of the first rules I remember learning was, "archiving."

During the summer between high school and college, I dated a computer genius, a few years senior to me, who was an incredibly nice guy. Dates involved hanging out at his house playing really cool computer games or watching Montey Python movies with his friends. Because he was so knowledgable about the whole computer scene, I kind of took everything he said as gospel. Somewhere along the way, I got indoctrinated with a certain code. When people swapped software and loaded it onto each other's computers, they were just making back up copies of what they purchased in ways that the backups couldn't be destroyed. They called it archiving. The idea of software being licensed for use was a ridiculous legal con that the Microsoft corporation had come up with. And by the way, Microsoft, by copyrighting the DOS system and suing anybody who used any of it's code, set the computing world back by decades.

OK. I may not have really understood it that well at the time. And I definitely haven't recounted the arguments properly. Yet, it is safe to say that by the time I left for college, I had absorbed a certain value system. In the digital world, if someone could share it with you, why pay for it yourself?

Over the years, I have watched as this computer culture, started by the teenagers and young men of my youth, has tried to define a completely different economic model for the digital world.

There is Share Ware. If you like the program, pass it along to somebody. Sending money to the programmer is your choice.

There is Open Source coding. We all agree nobody owns this. Everybody can use it and build off of each other's discoveries,

Missed your favorite TV show? No problem. Search the web. Someone has uploaded the recording as a video that you can watch for free.

Of course, corporations, who feel threatened by this kind of culture, attempt to draw lines in the virtual sand. It bemuses me that any person who uses paid software has to agree to an incredibly complicated legal document, pages long. Nobody ever takes the time to read them. And if you do take the time, it would require a lawyer to explain what the darn thing is saying.

What is the average person's mental process with this?

"Oh I have to click this agree button in order to use the software I just purchased."

Scrolling through the license agreement, "Who has time to read this? It probably just means that I agree to not give a copy of the software to my friend."

Clicks agree.

Gives a copy to a friend anyway.

Let's face it. That is the world. Especially if the program is really expensive.

So why am I on a rant about this?

Because as I have gotten older and, God help me, more conservative, the notion of protecting intellectual property is a question I keep going back and forth on. I write. It is intellectual property. I sure would hate to see that property misused, and I like to be asked permission. But then people are people and they make copies and distribute it. The thoughts get out there, the ideas get out there. Who am I to complain? If I really had my heart set on being a millionaire, I would have done something different with my life.

But I respect the artist who creates something. Who wants to keep it protected. Who wants to make a profit from it.

And then...Merlin comes along.

Merlin is a television show originating in the UK, airing on the BBC, and then rebroadcast on the SyFy channel in the US. Inspired from the success of Smallville, which recounts the teenage years of Clark Kent, aka Superman, Merlin revisions a different kind of Camelot. A Camelot where Arthur, Gwenevere, Merlin and other names from legend knew each other in their youth. It is a quirky show. Spells and fighting. Great sets and costumes. Sometimes the writing is quite good, but I don't watch it for the writing. I watch it for the magic.

I stumbled across some of the episodes on SyFy and then had to catch up on everything I missed. It was so easy to find the previous seasons available for free online. I completely enjoyed every single one of them.

Then, due to changes in my budget, I got a little skinner with the satellite stations, and lost access to SyFy. Season 4 came out in England this October. It is just now being released in the US.

I understand what SOPA wanted to do. I understand it from the perspective of a corporation. But this is the problem. When a girl is in love with a TV show that she won't be able to watch until months from now in the US. And even then, she would have to resubscribe to a satellite channel that she is not very interested in- why do you think she is going to care about copyright law? She is going to take two minutes, Google the latest episode, and find the nice person who recorded it for her and shared it online so she doesn't have to wait or spend the extra money. If someone else is willing to share it, why should I have to wait and pay for it?

So every week from October until December I gleefully watched the fourth season of Merlin. Except for the ridiculous episode with Lancelot coming back from the dead, it was AWESOME.

And I kind of felt guilty about it.

Guilty that I was enjoying something I really loved, but had no way to give back to. I understand it takes money to create a show like that, and I do want to show my support.

So this week, I made the decision to go to the iTunes store and be a good consumer. Show my appreciation. Participate in the economic model that allowed this wonderful show to come to life. I'm not talking about British taxes. I mean downloads.

I spent $10 and purchased the first season of Merlin. Even though I have watched the first season on line for free a dozen times now.

It was a disaster.

I didn't realize that each show would be half a gig that I had to store on my laptop. Which did not have the room for it.

I didn't realize that it was going to take around an hour to download EACH EPISODE from the iTunes store. When I stream it on-line, it takes no time at all. Although the quality may not be as good.

It isn't really ten dollars for the episodes. It is ten dollars plus 7 Gigs of storage, plus 13 or so hours of download time. And for what? When I can instantly access the episodes anytime I want from the nice person who recorded it and shared it with me?

Here is the essence of the problem. The commercial world demands that the digital world be something it is not. By its nature, the digital world is open access to anything at any time to anybody. The commercial model is to deny access to all but those who can afford it. The two cultural mind sets do not meet up in any way, shape or form.

The innovation in the online world has come, from the beginning, from those people who were invested in open access. It is only since the Internet has gotten so huge, so global, that some corporate interests want to find a way to make it work according to their rules. But the rules of exclusion and limited access would have never allowed the Internet to develop into what it is today.

What does that mean practically?

It is not that I, as a fan of Merlin, do not want to give something back for the work that the production company has done. It is that it makes no sense for me to participate in the economic models that are available. I do not need what they have to offer. By the very nature of what the Internet is and how it works - I do not need the downloads. And buying something out of a sense of guilt is not really a long term solution.

If today I can watch something I like for free through the Internet when all the paid sources to watch it are slower and later, it changes the economic game.

But it does not change the respect I have for the creators involved.

Maybe I will just send a donation to the BBC instead.

With blessings,

Ek Ong Kaar Kaur