This is terrible! How long have kids been stealing content?


Not to over-generalise, but more-or-less forever!

When I started writing this post, I went into deep thought to come up with an example or two from my own past that could be compared to torrenting TV shows and downloading MP3 files. After 15 minutes, blushing with remembered guilt, I had an entire catalog of thievery[1].

Cable splitters: Back in the 1970s and 80s, you had to subscribe to cable in order to get the US channels: an antenna didn’t work, at least where I lived in West Vancouver. I don’t know what the monthly bill was back then, but a coaxial cable brought us a list of around 20-30 TV channels. At first, when almost all homes owned only a single TV, this was fine. Those few homes that could afford a second TV and wanted to connect THAT to cable had to pay for another subscription. Which was no big deal, since we all assumed that only multi-millionaires had more than one TV; and they could afford the extra $10 a month or whatever it was.

But the price of TVs fell quickly, and even middle class homes bought a new one for the living room, and moved the older set into the basement. But the idea of paying the cable company MORE money (for a signal you were already paying for) seemed nuts. Why not just buy a cable splitter (photo at top), put it against the wall where the cable entered your house, and run a coaxial cable to the new set? I guess it was illegal, but it didn’t feel illegal.

And do another split to another TV set, and (while I am at it) that same cable also transmitted high quality stereo FM signals that I couldn’t get with an antenna, so I connected my FM tuner to the co-ax too. The problem is that each splitting of the signal causes the signal to attenuate (by about -3.5 dB, if you care) so that by the time I had a spaghetti monster of cables coming out of that single ‘line in’, the TV reception had gone to hell. Did I stop stealing and pay for each signal? What are you, crazy? I went out and bought a power amplified cable splitter, which were much more expensive. Not only was I stealing, but I was now purchasing special devices whose only possible use was theft[2]!

Cassette tapes: We were all happy to buy records in those days. My generation was a bit after the 45 rpm single craze, so we owned 33 rpm vinyl Long Play (LP) albums. I had a paper route, and all my money went on either my stereo equipment[3]  or albums from A&B Sound on Seymour St. at $5-10 per record. I probably had nearly 1,000 albums at one point. Not all my friends were so hard working or had such a large collection. Luckily the new generation of cassette tape recorders had better technology like high bias Chrome tapes and Dolby noise reduction, and that allowed me to make decent (but not great) copies for my friends. I didn’t charge them, except to cover the cost of the tapes. That was, yet again, not strictly legal. But since I had already paid for the content by buying the records, making the copies also didn’t feel like stealing.

Multiple phone lines: Remember how we were supposed to pay for each TV connected to the cable? Same for phones. It was illegal to run your own wires and create a new RJ-11 jack, and you weren’t allowed to buy your own phone in the States and connect it to the system. Only phones rented from the monopoly carrier, and connected to authorised jacks, were allowed. There was no way to enforce this, of course, so we cheerfully ran multiple lines and bought phones. To be clear, each phone had to share the same number (929-1939, if I recall) so we only had one line. Once again, this didn’t feel like stealing, but I don’t think BC Tel would have agreed.

Photocopied textbooks: OK, now we’re getting serious. University text books were as expensive then (in the money of the time) as they are today. And paying (in 1982 dollars) $60 for a text was killer, when I was only making $3.65 per hour working at McDonalds. Multiply that by 5-10 courses per year, and more than one text for some classes, and I just didn’t see how I could afford to pay for all of them. So I didn’t. We pooled with friends, or copied library books, or otherwise made our copies[4]  at Kinkos from books we paid for but returned.

Did we know we were stealing? Oh yeah. We justified it all kinds of ways. We did pay 5 cents per page for our photocopies, right? And we all knew that the profs just assigned new textbooks (that they had written) to make money, and the old ones were basically the same. And that professors made an awful lot more money than we did. But, in our heart of hearts, we knew.

Computer software: I stole. I stole left and right. I stole everything but MS-DOS, and that was only because they forced you to buy that when you bought the PC. I stole games software, I stole spreadsheet software, modem software, mapping software, graphics software. Word processing. Charts. Tax software. You name it: if someone had spent years of their life writing code, I copied it onto a 5.25 inch floppy disk and loaded it on my machine. #hangsheadinshame

Why? I am not completely sure how I justified all the theft to myself, but perhaps it was because the PC was this new thing? Growing up I knew that stealing a horse was bad (rustling), and bank robbery was bad. Heck, even a loaf of bread could get you in some serious trouble in Les Miserables! I knew all that from movies and TV and books. But I hadn’t seen a whole lot of information about how stealing PC software was wrong, so somehow it didn’t feel wrong. It may even have felt kind of cool? Hackers were heroes in the movies I was watching.

Computer Time: I don’t even think this is a thing anymore. Anyone who wants access to computing has their own device(s), access to one at work, or can get time at the library. But that wasn’t common in 1985. But my girlfriend did work at the Word Processing centre at UBC. There were a bunch of dumb terminals, and a central minicomputer[5] running WordPerfect. After hours, while Deirdre worked away, she tolerated me hanging around and playing an early text based computer game[6]. It was awful by today’s standards, but enjoyable enough that I asked her if I could bring some friends over. There’s no question that NONE of us were supposed to be there, and we were certainly “making unauthorised use of university property.” AKA stealing.

Gee, my parent’s generation must have thought we were a generation of thieves?


Not so much. I learned the cable splitting trick from my Dad – he’s an electrical engineer and taught me about the dB power loss. I doubt he or my mom cared about the cassette tapes: I had previously listened to hours of bootlegged music they had (illegally) recorded on an old 1958 Philips reel to reel recorder back when they were in their 20s! I am not sure if my parents did this, but teenagers used to sneak into drive-in movie theatres in the trunks of their friends’ cars. I don’t think they knew about the textbooks, and probably wouldn’t have understood the PC software theft, not having a PC of their own.

So I guess that generation, growing up during WW2, were the first generation of thieves of media? Nope. Before that shellac recordings were pirated, the original cylinders were pirated…even sheet music was pirated. The novels of Dickens were pirated in the US, and Twain was pirated in England; and Victor Hugo was pirated both places! I haven’t found anything about illegal copies of Player Piano rolls, but I bet they are out there. And people were stealing Shakespeare’s plays within days of their being performed.

Given that the history of the last 500 years indicates a large market for intellectual property theft, why are we labelling the kids of today as thieves?

A final observation:

Young people steal more, because they are relatively poor. When they are no longer poor, they may be more willing to pay. That may not happen with this generation, but I can only give my own evidence: I pay for EVERY copy of computer software today, and have for decades. Same with music and video: I know there are stolen versions available, but I won’t use them.

Interestingly, we are starting to see some of the same trends in young media consumers today. When we look at growth in PAID services, like Netflix, Spotify, and Pandora, we can see that – given a legal option – they may be willing to pay.

Which was the subject of my CMF guest post.

[1] I need to be clear here. The behaviors I describe below were not felonies. The stealing I am talking about was not against the Criminal Code of Canada, but was violations of agreements between me and various service providers or content providers. To the best of my knowledge, almost nobody was ever caught, charged, fined or even disconnected for the kind of stealing I did (sort of like how no one gets arrested for downloading MP3s, now that I think about it!) There were stories that the cable company would fine you if they caught you using a splitter, for example. But I don’t know if that ever happened.

[2] As an aside, this is much less of an issue today. Each TV set usually requires a set top box, so a simple device like a cable splitter doesn’t let you watch on multiple sets any more.

[3] I still miss my Dual 505 turntable with the Shure cartridge.

[4] While standing underneath signs that warned that copying textbooks was theft!

[5] I think it was a Digital Equipment PDP-11, but I could be wrong.

[6] If I remember, it was a variant of Dungeon, but this was 30 years ago. There were swords, elves, and jewels…if that helps. J

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One response to “This is terrible! How long have kids been stealing content?”

  1. Todd-R says :

    Always a good story on how your mind works, and I have heard a lot of them over the years. Todd

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