Living Out Loud

True Confessions - My Life on the High Seas

A drawing of Blackbeard the Pirate with burning wicks in his hair.

Those of us whose online life began with 2400 bps modems or slower remember what life was like when viewing an image online meant downloading it line by line over a 10- or 15-minute period. One image. The early editions of CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL were all text-based, as were local BBSs. When the real Internet, the kind you access through a browser, or rather through Netscape 1.0, became available, for me in 1996, most of us had 14.4 modems; we quickly upgraded to 28.8 and then 56.6 bps. When things were still super slow, I remember downloading Netscape 2.0 like it was the birth of another child. It was about 6 MB in size, and it took 45 minutes of "NOBODY CAN USE THE PHONE." I paced back and forth outside on my lawn, smoking cigarettes and trying to imagine what the new web would look like. Eventually, web pages became slightly more graphical, but video, usually watched on something called RealPlayer, was still out of the question for all but the most patient or porn-hungry.

We got broadband at work before I had it at home. I'd just moved from the factory floor at a Westinghouse Electric factory to the front office to start a new position as a technical writer with a new Pentium computer, a $5,000 color printer, Corel Draw, and a Kodak digital camera that took photos on a small floppy disk. I also had access to a ZIP drive which featured removable media in the form of 100 MB disks. I bought one for home too so I could take files back and forth. Not business files, but stuff I could download at lightning speed at work.

In 1999, I was one of the first people on the beta installation of broadband in my community, having signed up two years prior on the waiting list. As a reward for waiting, I got my first six months free. At this point, I became the biggest outlaw I have ever been in my life. I lived an existence of pure piracy. Napster was just getting started, and I was in love with it. I downloaded every single one of Rolling Stone's top 500 albums I didn't already own. Then I made sure I got every one of the top 500 songs too. Then I started on discographies. 42 Fleetwood Mac albums. 39 Van Morrison albums. Johnny Cash had close to 75 albums, and I went after them all. It was glorious, the Wild West, and a time we will never see again.

Eventually, Napster got shut down, and its follow-ups, like Limewire, were virus-laden poor imitations of the real thing. With the advent of BitTorrent, downloading movies became easy, as did getting whole runs of shows like The Sopranos or The Wire. A new edition would come out on Sunday night, and Monday night you could download a copy to watch on your DVD player. People with Netflix DVD subscriptions were keeping entire neighborhoods entertained.

Torrents weren't just for movies either. You could get software on them. Back in those days, I didn't know any developers, and companies like Adobe and Microsoft charged hundreds of dollars for their flagship products. I felt fully justified in getting my pirated copy of Photoshop. It took up a third of my hard drive, and I had no idea how to use it, but I had a copy. There was an infamous program for Mac nerds called Serial Box that contained the registration information for hundreds of apps, many of them by independent developers and small companies. I started to feel a little bit slimy at that point.

Then my ISP started sending me letters informing me that someone in my house was illegally downloading copyrighted material. I ignored the letters because I figured they were bluffing. In fact, they were not bluffing, which I found out one Saturday morning in 2006 when my Internet would not work. When I called tech support to complain, I was told to call back on Monday and ask for the folks in the fraud and abuse department. Oh, shit. This was during the time that the RIAA was suing the grandmothers of teenage downloaders for thousands of dollars. I was terrified all weekend that I was going to lose my house.

When Monday came, and I made the call, the stern-sounding lady on the phone told me to go to my computer and read what was on the screen. It basically said, "If I ever download something illegally again, my Internet will be turned off forever." There was one checkbox, and it just said "OK." I had to check it to get my Internet back. Oh, the movie that got me busted? It was Little Miss Sunshine, I found out later.

That was it for me. I uninstalled all my torrent downloading software and deleted the bookmarks to pirate sites. I got a three-disk-at-the-time Netflix DVD subscription to satisfy my movie habit. I started buying the software I wanted, even if things like Eudora email were close to $50.

These days, with the advent of VPNs and other technological advances, it's easier than ever to continue to pirate stuff. I work with techies who never stopped and who have elaborate NAS systems connected to always-on servers that use keyword-activated torrenting software to collect their ever-growing wish list. Despite the proliferation of malware in pirated software and a much better understanding of what piracy does to small companies and indie devs, people are still downloading "free" copies of $15 apps. Not me.

I can live with the guilt of depriving Bruce Springsteen of a few bucks by not paying for some of his albums. I'm sorry, Boss. I'm long reformed, and I have never given anyone advice on how to live the pirate's life. It's not the kind of consulting I want to do. The Internet isn't the Wild West any longer. It's all e-commerce and taxes and such. For a while though, we sailed the seas.


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