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Steal This Video
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Back in 1971 when the hippie revolution’s Pied Piper, Abbie Hoffman, authored “Steal This Book” he got the very outrage he sought. Thirty publishing houses rejected it and, when the book finally came out, more than a dozen newspapers refused to print ads to promote it.
According to Hoffman’s inverted reasoning, it was immoral “to not steal from the institutions that are the pillars of the Pig Empire.” His manual included advice on stealing many things--including movies.
Ah, the times and the media are a changin’. But what about the morals?
The title of a column this month in The New York Times Sunday business section read: “No TV? No Subscription? No Problem.” It wasn’t merely a summary of widespread theft that plagues the entertainment industry in the digital age--a topic covered in many places, including in The Times--it was a pro-stealing treatise by a Times staffer, Jenna Wortham, that Abbie Hoffman probably couldn’t have articulated better himself.
Wortham began by recounting how she and her friends planned to watch the season premiere of HBO’s hit drama “Game of Thrones.” Only one member of the group would use a valid subscription; the others would each rely on what Wortham described as “a crafty workaround.” In her case, that meant stealing the program by using the password of “a guy in New Jersey that I had once met in a Mexican restaurant.”
Reporter Wortham even wrote that she “hesitated” before seeking a comment from HBO, fearing that it might prompt “a crackdown” and “I’d become the most-hated person on the Internet.”
With 30 million paying subscribers, HBO isn’t exactly hurting. In fact, Wortham’s “research” led her to conclude that HBO and other video providers “seemed to have little to no interest in curbing our sharing behavior--in part because they can’t.”
That last bit of phrasing packs quite a wallop. It’s beyond Hoffmanesque to describe the theft of proprietary material as “sharing.” It’s also conveniently misleading to conclude that the entertainment industry is indifferent to being robbed simply because, for the time being at least, there isn’t a practical way to stop it.
Content owners in all media, from music to newspapers, have struggled to overcome the perception that the Internet, and everything that flows through it, is inherently “free.” Of course it’s not--and the two media cited have paid dearly for allowing such a faulty premise to take hold for more than a decade, before finally taking steps to correct it.
At least Abbie Hoffman focused on a political objective. He wasn’t concerned with getting something for free as much as he was with changing the balance of power in society. And Hoffman’s title was ironic since over a quarter of a million people willingly paid for his book, making it a best seller.
HBO, in particular, has frustrated some consumers by declining to offer its mobile app, known as HBO Go, as a standalone product. The only way to get the app is to be a paying subscriber to the regular cable or satellite service. That business decision angers some viewers who feel it is not in the spirit of the digital age.
Wortham believes many media companies fail “to grasp the future of television as a shared social experience online.” The buzzwords “shared” and “social experience” seem to overlook the needs of businesses to function as profit-making enterprises, protected from those who would steal their products.
And finally, Wortham has the juice to complain that when she tried to log on illegally to HBO Go, “the site was buckling under the load of many others who, just like me, were tuning in at 10 p.m.”
Modern media, especially those with shallower pockets than HBO, have the unenviable task of marketing their content while also convincing potential customers that stealing it is uncool.
“We all mellow with age,” Abbie Hoffman told me, 13 years after writing his unlikely best seller. For him, thievery was a means to an end, not part of a shared social experience.
Peter Funt can be reached at His new book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” will be published next month.