Piracy Can Be a Great Educational Tool

In Opinion, Technology
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I am just going to say it: I am known to download pirated content. I feel a minor amount of guilt, but I do it. I do it because it’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s free. It’s often significantly easier than acquiring content legally, and as long as that continues to be the case I don’t believe piracy will be curtailed in the slightest.

Not that that excuses the behavior.

It had to be said because I’m presently going to extol the educational virtues of piracy, and you should know upfront that I’m no saint: I download pirated content almost solely for consumption purposes. The educational benefits are a surprise occasional byproduct.

The first time I learned something from pirated content was probably a DVD rip. I can’t give you particulars because it’s been so long (DVD is nearly 20 years old) but I remember downloading what seemed to be an entire DVD disc, only with limited menu options. That’s because the person who ripped the disc stripped out the additional language options and the special features, and modified the menu to make certain buttons inaccessible. I thought this is cool. How do I do this?

I downloaded all manner of DVD authoring software—some shareware, some pirated, most of them terrible, but all of them good learning experiences. I taught myself how to author a DVD, and even had a college job at a video store where I got to put that newly honed skill to professional use. When I graduated and landed a summer internship at Warner Bros., that opened the door to a DVD authoring position within the company, which I got partly because of the portfolio of work I was able to show them—all of it done on pirated software.

Here’s a later example: I bought my first e-reader four or so years ago—an Amazon Kindle Keyboard. I legitimately bought books, but not every book was available in e-reader format at that time. When I found books I couldn’t buy, I looked for them on PDF, which I discovered to my disappointment displayed poorly on the Kindle. That was when I became acquainted with Calibre and began dissecting every book I had in an attempt to figure out how to compile text of my own choosing into a Kindle-friendly MOBI format.

Now I know everything about creating MOBI and EPUB files. In the process, I became a master at using Notepad++ and the powerful Regex expressions that allow you to skillfully parse and manipulate text data. That’s knowledge I use almost daily for a multitude of purposes, not the least of which being web development. I might have never learned this if I didn’t have a book-sized jumble of pirated text that needed to be precisely formatted.

Jump forward to about a month ago. I was downloading a not-to-be-named TV show, as I do at times. Comparing that file to the prior week’s download, I was surprised to find that, although they were both 1080p, one was about 2 GB while the other was a paltry 500 MB. I thought who overly compressed this file?

But it wasn’t the compression—this was an entirely new video codec, alternately called HEVC or H265. There was nary a compression artifact to be found on my TV show. At 1/4 of the size of its H264 counterpart, the picture looked perfect—proof of concept right before my eyes. This codec is the future. It is an evolutionary leap forward for video compression.

So how had I not heard of it? This sort of thing is my province. I should know about it before nearly anyone. But I hadn’t, and if I didn’t pirate that show, I still wouldn’t know it about today. Now I have an H265 encoder installed. I’m going to learn the ins and outs of this codec, and I have no doubt that I will one day put that knowledge to use in a professional setting…

… thanks to piracy!

It’s like this: if you want to learn how a car works, the best way to do that is to take it apart and put it back together again. Likewise, if you want to learn how software technology works, take it apart and put it back together again. Piracy facilitates that because someone has already done the heavy lifting for you, stripping out the encryption that content holders put in place so you can’t look under the hood.

To reiterate, I’m not saying that stealing is good. But there’s clearly a use case here that’s difficult to fully condemn.

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