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Jennifer Lipman: Online pirates understand the market better than their legal rivals. The challenge for TV companies is to catch up

’d heard about it even before I arrived at university. It was a campus legend; a system that allowed you to watch any television programme whenever you wanted, with just the click of a button. All you needed was a connection to the campus computer network, and you were in.

IIt was, of course, totally illegal – a large-scale file sharing service dreamt up by an opportunistic computer geek. The university shut it down sporadically, but within days it would rise again, Lazarus like.

Even without it there were dozens of ways to watch your favourite series, from downloading video files, to streaming episodes on websites with names such as Surfthechannel.

We knew it was wrong. Nobody who downloaded an episode of The West Wing or The Wire – even the student anarchists – thought they were in the right, or sticking one to The Man. But it was easy and everyone did it.

In the battle against online piracy, it’s been a good week for television companies. The US authorities swooped in on a content-hosting giant called Megaupload.com and arrested four of its masterminds.

But the war isn’t over yet, especially not when it comes to television. The geeks will simply get better at bypassing the rules. If companies want to even mitigate the damage then they need to accept that the concept of a domestic TV audience – one governed by top-down TV schedules – is on the way out.

Once upon a time, we watched programmes on “normal TV – channels one to five – or, for the lucky ones, satellite. Homegrown audiences watched homegrown programmes immediately, but had to wait several months for foreign imports. You could record a programme and watch it later, but unless you remembered beforehand, you’d have to wait for the repeat.

About five years ago, that changed. Suddenly TV was available when you wanted it, through software such as Sky Plus, but more importantly via the internet, on legal catch-up sites like iPlayer when possible, or illegally when not. If you’re under 30, “watching online” is as natural as sending a text – it’s simply how the system works.

It’s no coincidence that “watching online” took off at the same time as social networking. Television is no longer a passive experience, one limited to watercooler chat. Shows don't just exist in their weekly slot; they are tweeted about during and blogged about after. The internet allows for endless analysis. Don’t believe me? Log on to Lostpedia, a site dedicated to every twist and turn of the infuriatingly confusing drama Lost.

Television companies have welcomed it, posting spoilers or sneak peaks on fan sites, provoking ever more buzz. What better way to market a series than have the viewers do it for you? The global internet community discussing the latest plot twist? It’s a dream come true.

But buzz isn’t limited by borders or TV schedules and audiences don’t want to be either. Why, when everyone is discussing it online, should British viewers be forced to wait three weeks after the US for the next episode? Why should they miss out if they forgot to "series link"? Why, when the technology is available to watch it now?

The rationale is not that it's acceptable to steal. Most online viewers wouldn’t walk into a shop and pinch a handbag. But to a fan of a show, it’s as if everyone around them is showing off the handbag and they’ve been told they can’t buy it until it’s out of fashion.

Companies aren't going to win by putting everyone in prison, or getting every site shut down. Instead, they need to follow the music industry and develop a model that allows online viewers to act within the law and within the profit margins. There will always be those who will choose not to pay, but for too long the option hasn’t been there.

This has started – sites like Hulu in the US or 40D here allow domestic audiences to watch online with advertising or for a small fee – but the services tend to be unavailable abroad. If TV companies really want to win on the web, they need to take notice of the fact that it is “world wide”.

Perhaps modern audiences are too entitled, too prone to stamping their feet. “I want doesn’t get”, as my grandmother used to say. But the reality is that “I want” will find a way to get. TV companies need to wise up and make that work for them.