Do you have a favourite TV show that comes from the US? Are you a fan of Lost, Desperate Housewives, 24 or CSI perhaps? Do you have broadband internet at home? If so, you could be one of the thousands of Australians downloading TV programs from the internet using tools like Bittorrent and eDonkey, making Australia the second largest TV pirates in the world (behind Britain) according to a recent report from monitoring company Envisional.
Popular U.S television shows such as "The West Wing", "The Sopranos" and "Friends" usually air in Australia months after they are broadcast stateside. For impatient fans, the Internet offers bootleg, advertisement-free programmes that can be downloaded in a few hours over a high-speed connection.
Unlike music downloading which came before it - and which most people recognise as being piracy and law-breaking in a moral sense - downloading television isn't seen as anything different from taping your favourite TV show on the VCR.
For years, the strategic issue on the top of the minds of most media executives has been convergence. As Bill Gates' dream of a PC in every household approaches realisation, new innovations like Windows Media Centre Edition - which are designed to work with a remote control and display through a TV, not a desktop monitor - are promising massive changes to the entertainment industry.
The accessibility and affordability of broadband 'unlimited' internet plans, however, is proving to be an even bigger driver of convergence, as users in the millions use special download technology - most prolifically, the Bittorrent system - to download entire movies and TV series in a matter of hours. In this way, computers are changing the way we interact with TV media in unprecedented ways.
Bittorrent - like Napster and Kazaa before it - can be used for peer-to-peer file sharing, where people (peers) share files with each other without the need for central servers. This makes the medium notoriously difficult to police and manage, and because of the way Bittorrent works, it is really good at sharing large files - many gigabytes in some cases. Bittorrent is much more suitable for these big files than previous peer-to-peer systems - instead of waiting to download a file from a user who has completely downloaded it, Bittorrent users can download from peers who are also still downloading. This means that number of people in the network - or torrent of bits of data - is much larger than previous systems.
Episodes of the espionage drama "24" become available for downloading with BitTorrent within minutes of airing in the U.S., according to Envisional, and a typical episode is downloaded by about 100,000 users.
Hollywood is not standing idly by. Fearful of a repeat of the rampant downloading that affected the music industry, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has forced the closure of several sites that provide the links needed to download movies and television shows.
If that doesn't work, there is always the threat of lawsuits. When the MPAA shut down a site called LokiTorrent (www.lokitorrent.com) earlier in the month, they seized reams of data including logs of user data that could enable legal action against individual users.
Most analysts believe it is unlikely that the MPAA will resort to suing individual users, however, Australia's recent changes to the Copyright Act to comply with the draconian measures enforced by the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement make this a higher possibility than they were when the RIAA sued hundreds of Americans last year.
*** Relevant links: www.bittorrent.com ***