Some of my best friends are internet pirates. . .
The film and TV industries are panicking over the rise of illegal downloads. Everyone's at it, reports John Meagher 'It's ironic that the very people who engage in piracy are those who love the creative industries'
I felt like an outcast who had not been invited to the hottest party in town. I can't have been the only television viewer, not subscribed to Sky, who thought they were missing out when Sky Atlantic was launched amid frenzied publicity last month.
It seemed that everyone was talking about its schedule -- a veritable roll-call of the most acclaimed programming the US has to offer.
Then, just days after I expressed my views to a friend, an unsolicited pirated DVD-R featuring the first six episodes of Boardwalk Empire -- the jewel in the Sky Atlantic crown -- had been dropped into my office. My mate thought it only fair that I should see for myself what all the fuss concerning this prohibition-era drama was about.
That week, I mentioned to a movie-loving colleague that he should check out Black Swan, which I'd just seen in the cinema. He told me he had seen the film two weeks before release on his laptop and if I wanted, he could supply it -- and the then unreleased True Grit -- on a memory stick.
"Don't be afraid to ask," he said, cheerfully. "I can get you anything you want."
Both friends love movies, top TV shows, music and books. And neither feels there is anything wrong with pirating.
"I spend a lot of money on the arts as it is," one of them says, "so if there's a TV show I really love, I'll go out and buy the box-set. But I will have downloaded it first."
"Everyone I know is doing it," the other says.
"I've been taken aback about how easy it was to be able to download the likes of Treme (the new series from the creator of The Wire, David Simon) or Entourage.
"Just Google the name and you'll be brought to a site where you can stream or download for free. Even a technophobe like me can do it, although you have to be wary of viruses."
Piracy of all kinds in the music industry is so well-known that discussion of it has almost become old hat, but now it's the turn of television and the film business to really feel the heat of download culture.
It is thought that the advent of Sky Atlantic is likely to lead to a fresh surge in piracy now that shows like Mad Men (hitherto on terrestrial television) will, for now, only be available to Sky subscribers.
Analysts say streaming from unofficial websites will peak in the next few months and, in the long term, increased demand will bring new and cheaper ways to watch television over the internet into the mainstream.
While many non-subscription viewers are still happy to wait for the release of DVD box sets, younger audiences are already resorting to streaming bootleg episodes from sites not sanctioned by the programme's rights-holders.
A senior figure at Sky Ireland is concerned for the future.
'We've seen what piracy has done to the music industry. With ever-faster broadband coming on stream, it seems that piracy has become easier and more user-friendly than ever.
"Long term, that's going to have severe repercussions for the industry as a whole, whether its film studios or television networks. If less money is coming in, the quality of programming is likely to dip."
Gennaro Castaldo, HMV's spokesman for the UK and Ireland, believes government legislation must be in place to compel internet service providers to adopt the so-called 'three-strikes-and-you're-out' policy in order to deter would-be bootleggers.
"It's ironic that the very people who often engage in piracy are those who love the creative industries, be it film or music," he says. "They wouldn't dream about going into a shop and stealing a DVD, but they just don't realise that by downloading a film or TV show illegally they are doing exactly the same thing.
"It's all well and good to educate people about the damage their actions are doing, but maybe the only way to tackle it is to really crack down on illegal downloaders. The problem is people feel they can continue to download because they won't be sanctioned."
Ted Sheehy, an Irish film journalist who writes for Screen International, believes the digitisation of the cinema business has made bootlegging easy.
'It was much harder for the pirates when it was plain old celluloid. Now, there are so many stages in post-production where leaks can happen.
"Still, the industry is taking it very seriously and one of the ways they're trying to combat the phenomenon is by lessening the gap between release dates in the US and this side of the Atlantic.
"And new models are being tried, like Artificial Eye releasing the Ken Loach film Route Irish on Sky Box Office on the very day it opens in cinemas.
"The idea is to maximise opening day returns, but it will be interesting to see if it has any impact on the pirates."
To this end, broadcasters are already taking action against piracy in the scheduling of popular shows in different countries.
It was greater co-ordination between broadcasters that, for example, drove the decision to show the last episode of the concluding series of Lost on the same day in Britain as the American finale went out.
Series four of Mad Men was also shown on this side of the Atlantic soon after the US transmission -- with the slim time gap intended to stop fans resorting to illegal methods to catch up on the action.
John Enser is a London-based lawyer who specialises in copyright law.
He believes that while the culture of downloading poses significant risks to cinema and television, "what matters to the industry is what the vast majority of the public are doing".
Online, or "connected", viewing, he contends, still has a way to go before it achieves commercial "traction".
"Young people already know where to stream from. And, broadly speaking, they know a legal site from an illegal one," said Enser.
"Most of the time it is pretty clear.
"If you Google 'Lady Gaga download', certainly not every site that comes up is legal. We tried it for Top Gear and the official BBC site came about halfway down."