By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
John Cole has none of the outward markings of a Public Enemy Number One type. The 55-year-old photographer and website designer lives a quiet and reasonably comfortable life in the same Midwestern city where he grew up. He and his wife, Beth, have owned their house for almost 30 years. The three kids they raised there are grown now, and though none of them went on to college, each is doing all right. Two are computer programmers, including daughter Diane, who recently bought her own home at 24.
Yet Cole* is exactly the kind of character the American entertainment industry has been chasing down and suing for the past three years-plus. The sticking point is his nearly decade-old hobby. Cole likes to spend his leisure time trolling around the internet collecting pirated movies, music, and software applications. The shelves around the family entertainment center are packed with the telltale sign of the chronic downloader: spindle after spindle of home-recorded digital discs bearing handscrawled labels—so many that John felt compelled a couple of years back to construct a database to keep track of his ill-gotten titles.
It started in the late 1990s, around the time he got his first broadband connection. "I'd read about a piece of audio software that sounded like something I could really use," he says, "but it cost close to five grand. As soon as I got connected to one of these sites, I found it immediately, and by the end of the day, I had a copy to take home and try. I was almost giddy." Today, in the Music stacks near his desk, he's just added a Beatles bootleg series called Let It Be: Day by Day, the ultimate cultist's delight: Every moment of those sour sessions is presented on dozens of CDs in chronological order. But Cole's personal passion is "cracked" software applications, illegal copies of copyrighted programs whose activation code has been broken. In the past two years, Cole estimates, he's cyber-hoovered about $25,000 in hot software.
And what he doesn't have, he can get from his three kids, all of whom know their way around the portion of cyberspace that the record and movie industries have branded "the darknet"—those corners of the web where retail entertainment products are made available for free. The Coles stand together as a family in professing no sympathy at all for the movie and record industries, which claimed losses totaling over $7 billion last year, though daughter Diane says she makes a point of buying CDs by indie bands she likes. They also agree that if the labels and studios want to remain viable, they'll have to put their product online and price it more realistically. Ninety-nine cents for an iTunes mp3? Too much, in the view of the Coles. And the online movie downloadsthat Hollywood is reportedly thinking of offering at up to $30 a pop? That actually draws giggles. Still, they give the entertainment business grudging credit for trying. One way or another, says Diane Cole, "Downloading is going to force them into the 21st century. I don't want to go to a store to get a movie or a CD, I want to push a button and get it now. I sit in front of a computer for 15 hours a day—I don't have time to interact with people."
The sheer volume of material available online these days is staggering. Though it's the uploading of new movies and music that makes for headlines and lawsuits, the illicit downloading resources available via the web are a virtual Library of Congress for electronic works of art and entertainment. As to movies, there are newsgroups and BitTorrent sites devoted to horror movies new and old, Hong Kong action films, animation, contemporary art house films, Japanese cinema of the 1950s and '60s, even The Three Stooges. Downloads of current and past TV shows are just as plentiful. Every episode of every Star Trek series ever conceived is out there, in multiple video formats no less, and new episodes of popular HBO series like the Sopranos and Deadwood get posted online within hours of their Sunday night premiere. Music is everywhere. New commercial CDs are often available by the Friday prior to their Tuesday release, because by then the first promo copies are in circulation. Older stuff? Bootlegs? Complete artist catalogs? If you can imagine it, it's probably out there. [See
There was a time when the entertainment industry believed it could stop digital thieves like the Coles with copy-protection software that prevented duplication and dissemination. Commercially released movies have contained copy-encryption software since the fledgling days of VHS. Modern DVDs feature a patented Content-Scrambling System (CSS) that prevents them from being copied using standard burner software. But for all it does to stop piracy, CSS may as well not exist. The web is awash in freeware patches that disable it. Most of the DVD programs used by downloaders, such as DVDShrink, remove copy-protection automatically. Makers of music CDs never even tried employing copy-protection until recently. It proved to be a fiasco. The nadir was Sony Music's "digital rights management protection system," a 2005 innovation on the company's CDs. Anyone unlucky enough to play a disc with DRM on his or her PC got a free Sony software patch installed on that PC. The patch, a "rootkit," contained software that left the machines sporting a security hole that made it easier for outsiders to hack them. When this came to light, Sony dropped DRM and again abandoned copy protection.