Don't ask Hugh Bonneville about illegal streaming. You'll only make him mad.

Photographer: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

'Downton Abbey' Without the Guilt

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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After spending an hour last night puzzling over why Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell chose to punt on 4th-and-1 inside Dallas Cowboys territory, and worrying, too, whether the desire of some companies to “hack back” at digital intruders might set off a series of private little cyberwars, I found it a positive relief to turn to the pleasures of the new season of “Downton Abbey.”

And a pleasure it was, for the writers seem to have found their footing again: betrayals and triple-crosses galore, heated if shallow political arguments at the dinner table, secrets bad and secrets good, “Remains of the Day”-style meditations about the passing of the old order, and (spoiler alert), a fire that allowed certain clandestine lovers to be caught in flagrante.

But, of course, as a blogger I am coming to all of this quite late. For many “Downton Abbey” fans in the U.S., the season began last fall, as they searched for various ways to download the episodes illegally. After all, the show aired in the U.K. months ago. And if there is one thing the world knows about Americans, it is that we hate to postpone gratification.

As a self-described “unapologetic Downton Abbey bootlegger” put it in a much-discussed 2013 essay in Time, “There are two distinct types of television watchers: those law-abiding types who politely wait for proper air times -- and those who laugh in the face of (cruel!) international broadcast agreements, searching the internet for illegal streaming and torrent sites, willing to sacrifice HD quality visuals to be up to date.” A similar piece in the Atlantic a year earlier noted how hard it is for the rising generation to “reconcile our spoiled hearts” to the idea that viewers in the U.K. get to see the episodes four months before viewers in the U.S.

This increasingly common practice is, to say the least, controversial -- especially among those actually associated with the show. Back in 2012, star Hugh Bonneville, upon being told by a Vulture.com reporter that she had watched the program early online, responded: “I wish you hadn’t told me you had watched it illegally. … Shame on you. Be ashamed.”

Was Bonneville right to be so censorious? Let’s put aside the legal questions, not because they don’t matter but because the ethical questions are more interesting. The ethics of A’s illegal download of B’s television show are not unlike those involved in A’s copying of test answers from B’s paper. In both cases, A seeks to obtain a thing of value (the pleasure of enjoying the episode; the pleasure of a better grade) without paying the necessary price (the waiting; the studying). There are differences, of course. Unlike the student who cheats on a test, the illegal downloader can tell himself that no one is actually harmed by his action.

Is the downloader right? It’s hard to tell without more information. The economic harm to the copyright holder comes if the download prevents an additional sale. By this measure, there is no harm if the downloader would not otherwise have purchased the product.

In this case, when we refer to a purchase, what we really mean is a legal viewing. Thus the harm occurs if the illegal downloader, in the absence of the ability to download illegally, would have waited to view the program when it was legal to do so. This would increase the audience for the program, and therefore potentially the contract price.

But the increase would be trivial if the number of fans who download “Downton Abbey” illegally turns out to be trivial, as some think it is. And it’s likely that many of those who watch the show illegally would otherwise substitute some other form of entertainment and never watch the program at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending the illegal downloaders. My parents raised me to believe that theft is wrong, and I believe it still. And I suspect that many of those who do watch “Downton Abbey” illegally share the same instinct, and would be swift to condemn the street corner buyer of an illegal early release DVD of a popular film.

People are complicated. As for me, I’m glad I waited to watch. The postponement of gratification is, as the dowager countess might say, one of those things the younger generation isn’t much good at. Of course, too often, neither is mine. But sometimes items of true quality are worth waiting for.

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Sidenote: Here’s the downside of postponing gratification. My local PBS station inadvertently cut off the final minutes of the episode, a failing some viewers who waited patiently rather than downloading illegally are likely to remember when fundraising time comes round. Recognizing that the market, like the social contract, cuts both ways, the station is doing its best to make amends.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net