Culture

X-Files and videotape: The early days of internet piracy

Commentary: TV piracy in the 1990s involved early net communities and VHS tapes. But we also made friends with other fans in the process.

Technically, it was piracy. Technically.

In 1995, I wanted to get my hands on "The X-Files." Before digital video streaming got so easy, TV networks in Australia would typically launch big new shows six months after they first aired in the US. It suited their ratings schedule, and there was no easy way to route around them. They had almost complete control over access to content and treated fans like dirt, shifting schedules on shows on a whim, knowing we had no other option.

In 1994 I'd started university and received my first access to the online world. Mosaic was my first web browser, followed soon after by Netscape. You could quickly run out of interesting web pages to read, so I spent most of my time using Usenet -- a server protocol that's been in action since 1980 for sharing messages in groups based around common interests. Like a cross between email and a web forum. You can explore archives of all of Usenet since 1981 through Google Groups.

X-Files Mulder Scully

It wasn't easy to pirate the "X-Files' back in 1995. But where there's a will, there's a way.

FOX

I joined alt.tv.x-files as soon as I spotted it. It was the right show at the right time for online communities, and alt.tv.x-files became one of the busiest places on the internet. No, not just Usenet. The entire internet.

This was also the moment I discovered spoilers. Other fans were half a year ahead of me with the show, but at the time it felt most exciting to just know everything first, to know what would soon be on the TV, and to share my new knowledge with other friends in the real world who hadn't heard the news.

Within this community, people were connecting globally and starting to offer to bridge that gap. Even fast networks were only delivering 1Mbps speeds, and video was still struggling to play well on computer screens, let alone be compressed for digital delivery. So Americans would offer to tape episodes and international fans would connect and offer to pay shipping costs to get things sent. This was far from industrial-scale piracy. This was a craft circle. One-to-one partnerships forming to share the love of a TV show. They knew who they were taping for and I knew who I was receiving from.

Money changed hands, but only to cover costs. Even this was a laborious task, cutting bank cheques and sending through the post to cover a batch of tapes. No easy fund transfers in 1995.

I even had to buy a VHS player that would support playing American format video (NTSC) on an Australian format TV (PAL). These days they just mess with us through region coding of discs, back then it was the legacy differences between colour and line count standards.

My show supplier's name was Tricia Denault. She was in her 60s, if I recall correctly, and she was a science fiction fan since a time when being a woman with a library of such genre novels made you seem very strange. We maintained our "X-Files" taping friendship for about four years.

I lost touch with Tricia a few years after we ended our tape sharing arrangements. Back then it wasn't easy to maintain contacts if you had a sudden change of email address.

I've tried to make contact again over the years. She'd be in her 80s now and I hope she is still in good health and pleased by the return of new "X-Files" episodes last year. I wonder if she has fond memories of sending tapes to her Usenet friend in Australia.

VHS tape

Tapes bigger than hard drives, with just a few episodes at a time.

There are similar stories from the last days of Napster. It was a one-to-one sharing system, so you were visiting another user's actual library of music. When a date was announced to shut it all down, people went hard at it for one last big wave of sharing.

It was still the dial up era for most people, so in that final rush people would chat and plead with each other to stay online just another 20 minutes until the file transfers had finished. It was the end of the early era of digital piracy, and the requirement for a real connection to another specific fan was fading.

I feel like an old man, beseeching the children to heed my words that while things were harder in the past, they were better. But there's a kernel of truth there: To access TV shows that weren't on TV in Australia, I had to make friends with people overseas. People I remember to this day. People who made my love for a show better, and people who made me see just how good this internet thing could be.

The internet was still all optimism, it was connecting people on opposite sides of the world. We were building communities of people who loved the same things we did, finding that we weren't alone in our weird fandoms. This was a revelation for someone who grew up only knowing people from my street, my school, or my sports teams.

Today, content flows so freely and easily within moments of broadcast at the speed of light, delivered in torrential clusters that separate what you get from any real person who has shared it with you. Authorities who want to track down such participants have ways to work out who you might be, but for the people just eager to access the shared content, the process feels anonymous and robotic.

We connect through forums, Reddit and social media now, of course, to talk about the shows we watch and the music we listen to. The act of piracy is separated from the fandom, and services like Netflix opened up the path toward large scale access without the wholesale piracy. So it's not worse, it's just different.

But that need for physical interaction, receiving tapes from afar complete with local advertising from a country far away, is something that I'll always remember fondly. Even if it did still take six weeks to receive the latest adventures of Mulder and Scully. That was still four months better than what the TV networks had in mind.

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