Deano’s answer to: “Is it illegal to watch movies online for free?”

I have a friend that swears up and down no matter what site you use or where you find movies online, it’s illegal to watch them. She believes that if you can watch it online, and for free, that it must be pirated and is illegal. Is this true? And if it is, why are these sites allowed to operate?

Let me just start by saying: there are some people you will never convince, ever.

When I worked for Harvard Business School, I was part of a team of IT contractors working to upgrade all of the faculty and staff computers from a variety of older machines (both Mac and PC) to an all-Windows Dell-sourced infrastructure (what can I say, the Dean of HBS at the time was a little nutty in the head about platform homogeneity being a panacea).

Part of these upgrades involved backing up their old machine data, just in case “something happened”, but also to help speed up migrations – we would copy the data from the old machine, then load everything in place on the new machines remotely, then do a “clean up” copy of whatever had changed/been created in the meantime.

In those days (mid 90s), our choices to do this effectively, in bulk, were limited: We could burn the data to CDs at around $2 a disc, or we could copy the data to Iomega Jaz cartridges… For $60/cart. That’s not counting the external burners – CD drives were a little more expensive, but call it $50 premium.

Obviously, if we went the CD route, we’d save money, space, and could keep a permanent archival backup of every job – with the Jaz drives, we thought, we’d need to eventually re-use cartridges after a “safe period”, because how could they possibly afford the $10K required JUST to run these backups. Well, you know, they wound up just buying Jaz carts for everyone, at a total cost of something like $15K more than just going with CDs. Jaz carts and drives proved over time to be significantly less reliable, media couldn’t be used in any drive like CDs could, etc.

Why did the “World’s #1 Business School” make such a silly move? Because, simply put, they worried that if the 5 IT contractors doing the work got hold of portable CD burners, that every compact disc on Earth would suddenly become vulnerable to piracy by these same workers… So, not only did they have completely unfounded fears over the use of CD-Rs, but they completely distrusted the very workers tasked with preserving the integrity of some pretty big name professors and their staff. It still makes me crazy to think about it.

What does all this have to do with movies, and illegal streaming/downloads? Well, nothing. Or EVERYTHING. Simply put, I think your friend has made up her mind, and won’t budge until a more significant percentage of her daily reality reflects the truth – that there are legal movie streaming (and download) sites, that even paid movie sites like YouTube’s commercial offering sometimes do promotional free offers, and that sometimes you can “pay” for a movie by watching commercials, or even performing specific actions (I believe it’s possible to rack up Facebook Points to watch movies there simply by clicking on offers, for example).

So, my advice is simple: do make sure that the free sites you view movies on are legitimate, but also don’t put any effort into trying to convince people who disbelieve you even when you show them proof. It’s a waste of both your time, and hey – you could be enjoying another movie instead of arguing about it! At most, you can hope that someday, they’ll wise up, and learn from their past follies[*].

[* If anyone has evidence that HBS has made such improvements in their Information Technology policies, I’d love to hear it. 😉 ]

Is it illegal to watch movies online for free?

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