Almost one year ago Stephen Bowie and Stuart Galbraith IV, on their respective blogs, began debating the aesthetic issues of watching movies via streaming video versus physical media like DVD and Blu-ray. That conversation, which you can read HERE and HERE, happily prompted a lot of good dialogue all over the Net where how one watches film is nearly as important as what one watches.

And, now, the conversation continues with a chat focusing on the subjects of bootleg videos and illegal torrents, as well as the related but fiendishly complex issue of once copyright protected movies gradually lapsing into the public domain, and whether this is good or bad for consumers.  

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Let’s start with the issue of buying bootleg videos. I think we’re pretty much on opposite sides of the fence on this issue, as well as the related notion of downloading/streaming movies officially unavailable.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, first of all, buying a bootleg is something I’m a lot less inclined to do than possessing a bootleg.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪How do you mean?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Because that does mean there’s a middleman who isn’t a rights holder but is making a profit anyway. I’ll only fill that person’s pockets if I’m pretty desperate to see something. I couldn’t do what I do, as a TV historian, without being heavily reliant on non-commercially released copies of shows. ‪Isn’t that also true of Japanese films for you? Let’s say there’s a private torrent site that contains a whole bunch of fan-subtitled Japanese films that you can’t purchase legally. Would you or would you not avail yourself of those? Would it make a difference if it was for “work” vs. pleasure viewing?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think needing access to movies/TV shows as a researcher is an entirely different issue. When, for instance, I was writing my Kurosawa/Mifune book, many of their films, particularly Mifune’s, weren’t available through normal channels. I ended up buying Hong Kong DVDs, for instance, Japanese DVDs sans English subtitles, and in some cases rented bootleg VHS tapes from Japanese rental stores in LA’s Little Tokyo and elsewhere. I’d rather fend for myself accessing what I’d need through rental shops here in Japan and, when necessary, going through official channels and viewing those titles I’d need to see through archives. ‪What I’d like to address is from the perspective of the ordinary consumer fed up that, for instance, Disney won’t release Song of the South, which has opened an underground market for that title.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Okay. And your response to that, from the consumer’s viewpoint, is what? “I guess I’m SOL then” and that’s the end of it?

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     Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Well, first off I believe Disney will get around to Song of the South eventually. The mighty dollar supersedes political correctness any day. Over time labels have gotten around these issues with (for my money, overly PC disclaimers and warnings), driven by legal concerns more than anything else.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪But that’s sidestepping the issue a bit. Are you arguing that someone curious about Song of the South would be wrong to avail him/herself of a pirated copy?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪From a historical and artistic perspective, it absolutely should be released. Besides, my argument with regards to that film is that Uncle Remus is smarter and wiser than all the white people in that movie. It’s no better or worse than a hundred other Hollywood movies from the 1940s, and certainly the racial stereotypes are far more offensive in Gone with the Wind.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Still doesn’t answer my question, though.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪No. I myself have a copy that was given to me as a gift. I haven’t watched it, partly because the picture quality isn’t where I want it to be. However, of the handful of bootlegs I have, all I’d gladly replace with legitimately purchased copies when and if those become available. But I don’t think that’s the case with those who rely on torrent sites for 50-100% of what they watch.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Right. That’s closer to the way I feel. My own primary concern about bootlegs is aesthetic — I’d rather wait and see if a remastered copy comes out somewhere. I even dumped TCM, finally, after deciding that even a recording straight off the air didn’t pass my quality check. Most of those were piling up unwatched in the hope of a legit release.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪With regards to your SOL comment, I think part of the problem is that many folks today want instant gratification. Old fogey me, I remember if you wanted to watch, say, Touch of Evil, what you did was buy TV Guide every week and hope, pray, that sometime over the next 6-9 months one of the 6-7 VHF and UHF channels would air it, and hopefully not at 3:00 am! For me the current state of home video is an embarrassment of riches. It’s positively amazing that so many obscure titles are easily accessible. Sure, there are a bunch I’d love to watch RIGHT NOW that are presently unavailable, but I have no doubt a good percentage of those will turn up sometime over the next year or two. I don’t mind waiting. A good measurement of that is DVD Savant’s Wish List. It was huge 10 years ago, but something like 80% of those titles are now available in some form.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪And I know collectors who yell at me for not having taped, say, The Wackiest Ship in the Army when it ran on CBN in 1984. The fact that my age was in the single digits at the time doesn’t buy me much sympathy.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Even those folks who have been complaining for years about George Lucas’s suppression of the first theatrical versions of the original Star Wars trilogy probably won’t have much longer to wait, now that he’s been bought out by Disney.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Or: I spend 20 years and a lot of money hunting down some rare TV show, and now it’s on YouTube. Any tool who wants can see it in three seconds. It’s infuriating, but that doesn’t have much bearing on the state of things now.

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Another thing: I’d bet many of those loudest bellyachers probably have a huge stack of unwatched DVDs and Blu-rays stacked up, gathering dust. Why not look at those while you’re waiting?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Look, I agree with that in general: Like you, I’ve had so much stuff to watch during the DVD era that for the most part (aside from my area of specialty, which is a big exception), I haven’t needed to go outside the proper channels to find stuff to watch.But: One reason I felt like this was a natural extension of our conversation last year is that the shift from physical media to streaming changes this equation.‪ If the market is tilting away from the possibility of a consumer legally purchasing (as opposed to streaming / “renting”) a copy of a movie, does that alter the ethics of bootlegging?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think that shift hasn’t so far stopped the flow of new and interesting releases, for one thing. Sure, if DVD and Blu-ray and all other physical media came to a full stop, that might change the rules. But that hasn’t happened. DVD and Blu-ray have been “dead” for several years, supposedly. I don’t see that now or in the immediate future. What I do think bootlegging and torrents are doing is having some, probably unmeasurable, impact on marginal titles. If everyone who wants a copy has one on their hard-drive already, what’s the point in releasing it to Blu-ray, DVD, or as a MOD?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I’ll bet they are cannibalizing the same niche audience that small indie home video labels need. Which is a problem. Well, then, take it as a hypothetical, or look at some of the isolated instances where it’s true now. For instance, Criterion’s Hulu channel. Even if that’s not a dumping ground for films they don’t plan on releasing on disc (which it seems to be), it’ll take them 20 years to get to all of them. And while I can stream those if I want to (which I don’t), in Japan, you can’t. Don’t you feel the impulse to have someone make copies of those rare Japanese films? Would you ever feel justified in doing so?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Well, I found ways around accessing the U.S. version of Hulu while still paying for the service. But if I couldn’t, probably, no, I wouldn’t ask somebody to burn a BD-R for me just because I want to see something. For research purposes, probably yes. I suppose the bigger question is: By dumping titles they’ve licensed on Hulu, is Criterion damaging the financial incentive to eventually release those titles to DVD and/or Blu-ray?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪That’s a good question. Yes, I suspect that Criterion starting that Hulu channel was a tacit admission that most of those films wouldn’t get a disc release, and so they wouldn’t be cutting into that revenue. But I do see a lot of people on movie forums talking about streaming a film to see if they like it and then if they do, buying a copy. For me that’s backwards — I’ll always seek out the best copy possible for a first viewing, even if it means blind-buying a Blu-ray of a movie I might hate. But it may be that for others streaming and disc purchases aren’t mutually exclusive.

     Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪As the author of a recent piece here on WCP bemoaning the lack of Jacques Rivette titles on home video, would you pay money to obtain those unreleased titles as bootlegs or torrents, and if so would you then re-purchase them should they come to DVD or Blu-ray?

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    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪It’s true that Milestone and a few other small labels have publicly said they’ve dropped plans to release films for which they have the rights because they’ve already been heavily pirated. So that’s not completely immeasurable. It’s really frustrating but, at the same time, still sort of an isolated example. I mean, I’m not going to download a Lionel Rogosin film now because Milestone is working on his stuff, and it’s probably reasonable to wait on almost anything that could come out via Warner Archive. But a ’30s Paramount title? I wouldn’t counsel anyone to hold their breath on that. ‪Would I purchase the unavailable Rivette titles from a bootlegger now? No. But, that’s what I was getting at earlier — I wouldn’t have to. These days it happens anonymously on the Internet rather than via one-on-one contact, but I could essentially “trade” for custom-subtitled rips of French DVDs. I’m not in a huge hurry to do that, but I would also have no compunction about it. For instance: I recently borrowed a gigantic set of Portuguese DVDs of Manoel de Oliveira’s films from a friend. There were three or four Oliveiras I hadn’t that weren’t in the set or weren’t subtitled so, yes, I did indeed acquire non-commercial copies of those so that I could drop them in chronologically.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Technology-unsavvy me asks, “What exactly are you trading?” in terms of technology? And how do you make each other’s needs known?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I don’t want to give away too many trade secrets (and I don’t know many, because I’ve only dipped a toe into this world), but essentially there are private, invitation-only websites where cinephiles upload rare stuff that others can then download as a digital file. In some cases the standards of commercial unavailability, and image quality, are quite high.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Hmm. This sounds like the 21st century version of secretive hoarders of 35mm prints in the old days! In any case I’m guessing we’re talking about numbers too tiny to have any major impact on even the niche catalog marketplace.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Exactly. Also, I believe you mentioned a kind of pool where you and some others commissioned subtitles for rare Japanese films, 20 years ago? Perhaps you can say more about that, but custom-subtitling is one of the factors that drives this underground community, and I think it’s one of the things that makes it ethically defensible.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Yes, well. Around the time I was researching and writing about Japanese fantasy films – this being something like 22 years ago – none of the original Japanese-language versions of these films were available in the U.S. officially. Local TV markets had stopped running them, and the only licensed versions were panned-and-scanned, dubbed into English, and often heavily recut from their original versions. Gradually some of the films became available on VHS by people who’d obviously obtained Japanese laserdisc versions (for the most part) and then had them subtitled privately. Eventually I learned the main dealer doing this was making so much money that he was able to fly First Class to Tokyo several times a year (a $5,000 ride) on all the dough he was making. Fans didn’t care. They just wanted to see the movies. I, however, got to know many of the original filmmakers – directors, screenwriters, composers, actors, etc. – people who’d normally be entitled to royalties from their studios had these movies been legitimately licensed. Clearly this guy was getting rich while the people who actually made those movies got nothing. There was a time before that when I was invited in to a small, private group (mostly fellow researchers) that would all chip in to have these movies privately subtitled. In that case most or all of us already purchased the Japanese laserdisc of the titles in question, so this was, to my mind, merely a self-financed supplement to that experience.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, I started to say that I don’t care if some douchebag gets rich if the end result is wider availability for the art; it’s incidental. Then the second part of your comment makes that seem heartless! But at the time, you have to admit, English-language licensing of those films had to seem extremely unlikely. I can only counter with my own experience, is that often people who made TV in the 50s and 60s ask me, “How did you see that?” And only one or two have then gotten annoyed that I had a copy of some never-released show that they helped to create; dozens, however, have asked me to send them one, because they didn’t have it themselves.

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    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪That’s the thing: Back in the early 1990s it seemed very unlikely that any Japanese fantasy films would ever be released in the west in their original form, except maybe the 1954 Gojira. Nor did I think I’d ever get the chance to see any of the original Cinerama travelogues from the 1950s unless I trekked several hundred miles to John Harvey’s custom-built Cinerama theater in Dayton, Ohio. Now, of course, virtually everything is available, on its way, or under consideration.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Dave Kehr would kick you out of Movieland for writing that! There was more available on 16mm in 1975 than there is on DVD now! Don’t you know that?

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I do think Kehr may be right about classical Hollywood films on 16mm in the ’70s, but that gap, if true, is certainly narrowing. Also, to rent (not buy) a 16mm print from a distributor was comparatively expensive, anywhere from, say, $40-$200, just to rent a print for a couple of days. ‪I do want to address a related issue, the fact that we may be entering a new age in which classic films from the 1930s may fall into public domain, most famously Disney’s early cartoon shorts, but also everything from King Kong and All Quiet on the Western Front to Warner Bros. gangster movies and Fred Astaire musicals, etc. Some argue this is a good thing, that it will free-up long unreleased titles. What do you think?

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    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪First off, I think you’ll see new legislation that extends corporate copyrights before huge swaths of sound films start going PD. That’s one reason why I’m provisionally pro-piracy in some circumstances: because big corporations (not the artists who work for them) have been writing US copyright law in recent years. But, generally, no, I think we’ve seen that public domain status does no favors for a medium as technically complex as cinema (or television). ‪I don’t pretend to have all the details figured out, but I’ve always said that the only way to pry the gems loose from the studio vaults is to create some kind of tax incentive for making that stuff commercially available. Obviously a non-starter in the current anti-NEA, anti-arts political climate (although who knows, maybe the corporate handout aspect would have some traction).

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Exactly. As someone who’s worked with home video departments in various capacities, I’m aware of exactly how expensive it is to store and maintain film elements, to create a new video master, etc. If, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs suddenly became available from any and every PD outfit for five bucks, Disney would have zero incentive to ever remaster it again. I’d hate to live in a 2040 world where everyone was watching movies all mastered before 2014. As for private funding, to some extent that’s been happening for years. Hugh Hefner has facilitated the restoration of many films through his projects at the UCLA Film & Television Archive and elsewhere. And as much as people gripe about DVD-R programs, it’s an avenue in which studios have found a way (well, some have, MGM’s is DOA) to make obscure, extremely niche titles that probably sell a couple hundred units cost-effective.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪There are a lot of Universal TV shows trapped in that kind of limbo now: The existing tape masters burned in the vault fire a few years ago, and no licensee is ever going to be able to afford to retransfer from the negatives. So your only shot at seeing BJ and the Bear at this point is old syndicated broadcasts posted on YouTube, basically. No, I’m very schizoid when it comes to the studios: If they’re taking good care of stuff and releasing it commercially, I’m their best friend. If they’re neglecting it, fuck ‘em: I’ll “steal” it.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Of course, with TV there’s the problem of volume. It’s easier for Warner Bros. or Sony to remaster an hour-long Buck Jones Western and market it to hard-core B-Western fans with a $19.98 SRP than it is to take a chance on a 30-year-old TV show with 150 50-minute episodes.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Yes. Although many distributors have found a way to do that on DVD, and in fact I think Time-Life and Shout! may have realized that “complete series” box sets are in some cases more marketable than a slow trickle of the same series. However, that may also explain how you and I are coming from different places here. As a TV guy, it’s always been up to me to acquire what I want to see, either by recording reruns or from collectors. Only in the last 10 years has it been possible to buy more than a handful of old TV shows.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Clearly, also, emerging computer technologies are making previously prohibitive projects, like the reconstruction of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World possible. Twenty years ago the same work might easily have cost ten times what they were able to bring that title in for.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪There, you see the kind of thing this demon technology can spawn? Shudder.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Yes, and also content-starved media like Hulu I’m sure is driving TV (and film) availability like never before. The damnedest TV shows seem to be turning up on Hulu.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Actually, I’m mildly surprised that streaming hasn’t liberated more old shows. Researching my David E. Kelley piece, for instance, I found that only early seasons of The Practice, Picket Fences, and Chicago Hope were on Hulu; presumably, only what had been remastered for potential DVD releases (most of which didn’t materialize). Warner streams a few shows (e.g., Hawaiian Eye) where they can’t clear music rights for whole season disc releases, and some recent shows that didn’t get a disc release (like Rubicon) will show up on Amazon or Netflix. But I’ve yet to see a motherlode that didn’t also appear on DVD.‪ I don’t think, in other words, that streaming is really driving that side of the home video business … which may be a good thing. I don’t know.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪As a resident of Manhattan, I want to ask you about the bootleg scene in NYC and how that’s changed, and also if you ever checked “specialty” dealers in, say, Spanish or Chinese neighborhoods.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I’ve done a little bit of that, but because ethnic video stores are targeting native speakers, there’s a limit on how much I can infiltrate them. I used to live in a neighborhood with some Indian video stores, but couldn’t make heads or tails of the DVDs in there. You may remember that I came to you for help when I found a cheap, very well-stocked Japanese video store in midtown. ‪In that case, I ended up printing out box art from Amazon Japan and other websites in order to find some of the few Japanese DVDs that had English subtitles. And I did find most of the Juzo Itami and Hiroshi Shimizu films that aren’t available here. But … once I started renting, I realized that most (though not all) of the rental copies had been replaced with bootlegged copies! So, even though Japan is not one of the countries we generally associate with video piracy, there you have it.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I find places like that fascinating. In Los Angeles I used to frequent Hong Kong and Chinese places recommended by Hong Kong cinephile Jeff Briggs, partly for those movies but also because they sometimes sold LDs or VCDs (and, later, DVDs) of obscure Japanese movies. There was a time, for instance, where the only way to see some of Kurosawa’s early films with English subtitles was via Hong Kong DVDs and VCDs.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, at one point I counted, and I have directly ordered DVDs from over 15 different countries!

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think generally immigrant neighborhoods of all nationalities tend to do this, less so classic films and more often tapes of ordinary network prime time shows shipped to the States for homesick emigrants.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪That’s interesting. That Japanese store did have a lot of JP (and Korean) TV shows, and many US films & TV shows, which would’ve been cheaper for me to rent there than from a regular video store … if they’d been the real thing! And understand, my objection to those bootlegs was aesthetic as well as moral, because they’d been compressed from dual to single layer in most cases. Fortunately the Itami discs were the originals, for some reason.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ There was a time when in, say, Times Square, you could openly buy bootleg copies of the very latest movies, as in within a day of their theatrical premiere and even before, usually taped by a guy sitting in a theater with a camcorder. (Seinfeld did an episode all about this.) Does that sort of thing still exist today?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I was thinking about that — yes, I still see the guys on the sidewalk with the blankets full of $5 pirated DVDs, though not as often. And I’m assuming they’re downloading those off the internet, not infiltrating a theater with a camcorder. Backing up one medium: When 35mm gave way to DCP, it took out the key ingredient in the experience of going to movie theaters for me. Yes, you still have the size and the shared audience experience … but I realized that what mattered most to me was that photochemical quality of celluloid. Without that, I lost the motivation to go to the cinema, and shifted most of that viewing to my home theater….

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Same here….‎ ‪So, onto my last point: What’s the scene going to be like five years from now? Will torrents and downloads, legal and illegal, kill DVD and Blu-ray for good?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪It’s not quite as dire, but in the same way, I feel like I would at least partially reject streaming video if it were to supplant physical media as the dominant delivery mode for home video. And what follows from that, naturally, is what do I do next? That has caused me to adjust my thinking about piracy somewhat.‪ Not because I feel entitled to free stuff (which is why many people download movies illegally) but because I do feel entitled to keep a movie in perpetuity if I purchase it, and to own a physical copy. Or am I not entitled to that, ethically? What do you think?

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    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪So then, almost bringing this full circle, yours is predominately cautious measure while I see no immediate end to this party, content that new DVD and Blu-ray titles will continue to flow in the foreseeable future, maybe not in exactly the way we’d like it all the time, but with enough new interesting stuff to keep me more than busy for the time being.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I don’t think I really have a prediction as to how fast things will change, but I think it’s clear that (1) there’s less demand for physical media, and that DVD & Blu-ray are evolving into a boutique market (like vinyl); and that (2) the rental market was a “bubble” that’s almost gone, and the future of consuming movies will mainly be a choice between buying or stealing. So, again, I ask it directly: If the choices are between streaming legally and acquiring a superior copy of it extralegally, what would you choose? In that future, would you censure cinephiles for congregating around private torrent sites?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think I’ve always been pretty clear on this point: As long as physical media exists for me that trumps even legal streaming, let alone poor quality bootlegs. I think where we disagree is about the speed and certainty about it going away for the most part or completely. Should it go away completely then, I suppose, all bets are off. It may come to that eventually but not, I don’t believe, anytime in the next five or six years.

     Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Yes, I think that’s true in terms of the time frame. It’s even possible that I should be more worried about being able to buy another plasma TV when the time comes than about finding discs to watch on it.

 

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4 Responses to Special Report: The Decline of Physical Media and the Rise of Illegal Torrents

  1. campbelldropout says:

    Can you explain what you meant when you said MGM is DOA?

  2. Stuart Galbraith IV says:

    Not MGM, just it’s manufactured-on-demand program.

  3. mdnitoil says:

    I find the whole topic of piracy a bit ironic. There are literally thousands of titles I might never have sought out if it weren’t for reviewers and film historians bemoaning the fact that these gems were being forgotten. Well, now they’re not forgotten, even if the only means of distributing them are through torrents, etc.

    Thankfully that list of hard to find films gets smaller every year with each new MOD release, but the list still exists.

  4. Oedipax says:

    Something I’ve been seeing more often lately and has really frustrated me is distributors releasing standard-def DVDs of their films and then selling & streaming 720p or 1080p copies through channels like iTunes and Amazon.

    My best-case scenario for any film I care about is a commercial blu-ray release. When that doesn’t happen, though, I’m conflicted about buying a digital copy that may carry DRM that limits how I can view it – particularly when DRM-free pirated copies are a 3-second search away on various sites. So far for most of the titles in question, I’ve opted for the DRM-free 1080/720 variants. I suppose in fairness to the filmmakers I ought to also purchase a DVD copy and consign it to the shelf, never to be viewed. But it all seems so wasteful and depressing.

    Anyway, I don’t buy the anti-piracy argument that ‘there’s so much stuff commercially available now anyway’ – I think cinephiles like myself who have grown up largely in the era of the Internet and within a predominately online, international film culture have very little patience for the vagaries of commercial distribution. Region-free players, custom-subbed DVD-Rs and HD rips, festival screeners, VHS or TV-rip copies when no alternative exists, hell, even the occasional amateur 16mm transfer of some otherwise unavailable experimental films…

    Especially for those of us who don’t live in places where there’s much of a revival scene, we either can choose to never see these films, excluding ourselves from parts of film history that have been largely cordoned off by arbitrary commercial concerns, or we can take matters into our own hands and seek out these films by other means. I really have no conflicts whatsoever about doing so, and it’s interesting me the almost pained hesitancy of what is perhaps an older generation. It’s not about thinking everything should just be free – but it is about not honoring the corporations who parcel things out a bit at a time. Life is too short to bother with such nonsense.

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