I’ll never forget the first time I realized downloading movies was a thing that was possible. Having grown up around my extended family whose living rooms were surrounded by bootleg DVDs and illegal satellite television, my cousin told me he was downloading a movie off the internet, and I couldn’t believe it. Up until then, the internet was just for Neopets, flash games, Ebaumsworld, and MSN Messenger. Could we really just watch movies that have not been released on video without going to Blockbuster?
It was 2003, and downloading music was already the norm by then, if not the only way anyone I knew listened to music. My cousin told me he downloaded movies all the time and said it would be a full day until Dicky Roberts: Former Child Star would be ready to watch. I remember the quality of both the film itself and the download being abysmal, but still—it felt like the future.
By the time I reached my teens, technology had advanced to the point where it took far less than a day to download movies and television, and streaming on media hosting websites like Megavideo meant I could watch whatever I wanted. As a teen, nobody really knew the actual laws around piracy in Canada, but it was common knowledge that it was fine to leech as long as you weren’t the one distributing the content. In any case, I never got caught or felt remotely guilty even if it was technically stealing.
A lot has changed since then. Netflix became a thing, and Blockbuster closed. Websites I had once used were shut down, and I didn’t learn what the new ones were. As new services continued to enter the market, all jockeying for my attention by offering various exclusives, my monthly spending on streaming skyrocketed to the point where I considered just getting cable.
In recent years, I’ve started sometimes streaming and pirating, though it’s now much trickier—for example, you should use a VPN. I noticed other millennials my age also seemed to have forgotten how to pirate and stream without subscriptions, with many lamenting the creation of new streaming platforms that offer above-board service, but with a monthly bill attached.
I wondered: Have Gen Z, who've grown up with in the age of Netflix long removed from piracy's heyday, given up on piracy, too? Surprisingly, 20 Gen Zs I spoke to pirate and stream using shady websites quite a lot—and have told me their peers do too, even with access to services like Netflix and Hulu.
Attitudes towards streaming without a subscription seem to have changed dramatically. When Disney Plus announced its line-up on Twitter, I tweeted about how people forgot “illegal” streaming exists with many responding to me that I was a thief and stealing from artists—a response that just ten years ago I couldn’t have imagined.
Both Netflix and Amazon paid little to no federal income taxes in 2018, and Disney owns everything. If I watch something without paying sometimes, I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Consumers shouldn’t be held to a higher standard than companies worth hundreds of billions dollars. I would never pirate or stream a truly independent project that needs the money, and I still pay upwards of 40 dollars a month on streaming services. Still, I’m not going to buy a new service just to stream a few episodes of a show I want to start watching.
I’m not the only one who seems to be finding non-subscription based ways to stream and download, in 2018 the Global Internet Report by Sandvine suggested that many are now going back to piracy, blaming the rise of Netflix competitors. It seems like Gen Z is leading a new wave of piracy, or it's at least joining and continuing an intergenerational piracy wave.
Hana, an 18-year-old from Germany told me her parents were the ones to help her learn how to pirate (making me feel extremely old).
“My parents taught me how to find 'safe' pirating sites when I was a child so I wouldn't wreck the family computer by downloading a virus,” She told me over Twitter DMs. For Hana and many others in her age group, a lot of it has to do with accessibility. “I happen to enjoy a lot of fringe media that’s very hard to access legally, so I feel no shame about pirating that as the alternative,” she said.
She's also not afraid of getting caught. “I don’t torrent as that’s easily tracked, and online streaming while morally questionable isn’t illegal as long as the content remains on the host site and isn’t downloaded," she said.
Most of the certified Gen Zs (people born between 1995-2012) I talked to spoke of pirating in the same way.
Sasha, a 23-year-old in Canada told me that she turns to pirating and streaming with no subscriptions because many of the rare or older films she wants to watch aren’t available on the streaming platforms she pays for. Plenty of the teens mentioned they were curious about films that don’t seem to appear on streaming platforms (and Netflix has fewer movies on its platform than it ever has, due to a focus on television). She also doesn’t feel guilty,
“Renting stuff is expensive! And I still go see movies in theatres and stuff like that,” she told me over DMs.
Some of the teens said they learned how to stream and torrent through older siblings, or the older siblings of friends. Most commonly, most began streaming before they were old enough to get credit cards or pay for legitimate services on their own, or simply couldn’t afford it.
One 20-year-old in Ireland told me, “Once I had decided that illegally streaming was something I didn't feel bad doing, it was never going to make any sense paying for something I knew how to get for free.”
It would be easy to equate not feeling guilty to not caring about supporting artists, but like me, plenty of the people I spoke with have their own set of rules when it comes to piracy and supporting artists.
“I feel like I support shows and movies I care about in other ways, and I find it hard to convince myself that I’m supporting art by paying more money to Apple,” One twenty year old told me.
Based on my conversations, the younger generation is disillusioned by feeling guilt towards “stealing” from huge media giants. They can’t afford multiple streaming services, even if people my age can. But beyond that, why should access to streaming platforms and having the money to pay for them determine who should consume art?
Remembering what I streamed and sought out the most when I was younger, it was international cinema I couldn’t find anywhere. It was through an illegal download I first watched Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host in 2009, a movie I still consider to be one of my favourites of all time. I couldn’t find it anywhere, and it introduced me to so much more Korean cinema.
Gen Z is screwed—they at least deserve the same rush of seeing a movie and really feeling something.