Digital entertainment piracy seems to be the rule for expats


While there is a raging debate in countries like the US, Canada, Australia, as well as in Europe about digital piracy (downloading things illegally for free), one thing that I have personally witnessed is that among the expat communities living abroad the rate of piracy is close to 100%. There are some obvious (and even justifiable) reasons for this, but still I’m finding it somewhat surprising to discover that it’s totally accepted and normal among virtually everyone I’ve come across.

We could debate endlessly about how the copyright owners should be dealing with this, but for the moment the expat ‘pirates’ are only a tiny slice of the problem so there seems to be little motivation for anyone to do anything about the situation. So for the time being this is certain to be something that just continues on unchecked, for better or for worse.

The situation, as I see it

Having traveled all around Asia and many other places before this, I’ve yet to encounter someone who refuses to freely bittorrent their entertainment based on the fact that it’s technically illegal (at least in parts of the world). I’ve heard of a few people who’ve continued to buy music from iTunes, but many if not all of them eventually give up because their credit card is refused from a foreign log-in, or something along those lines.

I’ve spent most of the past year living among a community of expats in a small town in Turkey, mostly British but a few Americans and Germans as well, and every single one of them gets their TV shows, movies, music, and even e-books through bittorrent. Some people probably imagine that “illegal” downloading is something that kids do because they were brought up in that world, but this group of people I’m part of ranges in age from early 40s to early 70s. The tech-savvy ones have helped the others learn the ropes.

The best justification for digital piracy among expats

It’s quite easy to download entertainment for free when the options to pay for it are either complicated or completely missing. Due to licensing issues, US TV shows (which are easily the most popular among everyone I’ve met) are impossible to buy if you aren’t in the US, unless you have a US-based iTunes account, and even then there are a lot of restrictions in addition to very high prices for some things.

Ironically, in most of the places I’ve traveled through in Asia, the only way to buy a DVD of a movie or a TV series is to buy it from a guy on the sidewalk or at an outdoor market. In that case it means that a middle-man is profiting from the pirate transaction, which many people think is actually worse than just downloading yourself for free. At least personal piracy doesn’t encourage a black market and it doesn’t involve a needless plastic disc either.

Being completely honest, there are some ways that most people could buy digital movie downloads or music, and even many TV shows and e-books, but they tend to feel very expensive for people living in cheap parts of the world, especially retired people.

More reasons everyone does it

France has recently been a leader among nations for clamping down on alleged digital pirates, and statistics seem to show that it’s actually slowing down the illegal downloads, but in most other countries it feels like no one is watching. In other words, the chances of getting caught and punished (even losing your internet access) are basically zero, so the only reason not to do it is if your personal moral compass won’t allow it.

And as mentioned, I’ve yet to meet a person whose personal moral compass won’t allow it.

Another reason behind it is that when you are living abroad it’s very likely that you’ll have very few legal options for TV shows and new movies, so paying for each one at a retail price could really add up quickly. In other words, when I was living in the United States I could put up an antenna (with one of those digital converter things) and get 10 to 20 free, commercial-supported TV channels. Maybe I couldn’t watch Entourage or Mad Men, but at least I’d have a lot of choices, including all the major network channels.

When living in another country you might be lucky to get a few English-language channels, and those are usually filled up with cheap programming that no one would download anyway. There’s a network called Star World in much of Asia, and it shows American Idol and a few other popular programs less than 24 hours after they air in the US, but even then it’s only a few shows and most people don’t have Star World anyway. For this reason, many expats have the options of not getting any premium entertainment at all, or spending quite a bit on the few things that you can acquire legally, or downloading whatever you want for free. I guess it’s not hard to see why that last choice is the one people go with.

Any solutions on the horizon?

This digital entertainment industry is one I follow closely so I feel qualified to conclude that there is no legal compromise even proposed, much less near launching.

As an American living abroad I would be willing to pay, say, US$40 per month for legal access to download my favorite shows, but licensing issues and the fears of abuse are keeping entertainment companies from even thinking about such a program. And honestly, it would be costly to set up and wouldn’t generate too much revenue, so it’s a long way off if it ever happens.

Also, my Brit friends who are downloading “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men” the morning after they are on in the US are even farther from a legal solution. Even Brits living in Britain can’t legally view those shows until they are broadcast in the UK – often weeks or months later – so expats certainly won’t get legal access quicker than that.

In the meantime, and into the indefinite future, it seems like expats are helping themselves to digital entertainment without much thought. And in much of the world there aren’t many good reasons not to. As long as your conscience doesn’t give you problems, it’s actually an ideal situation, where you get all the entertainment you want for free with no risk.


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