More thoughts on computer piracy in Romania

In 2009, I wrote a post entitled “Is it any wonder there’s computer piracy in Romania“. In 2011, after a couple more years in the country, I wrote another post entitled “Rampant piracy in Romania“. The end of 2017 is practically here, I’ve been in the country for nine years and I can now say that my view on the subject has gotten more nuanced. I’ll explain.

Yes, computer piracy is rampant in Romania. When most Romanians think of “getting” a movie, TV show or a popular album, they don’t mean “buy it” online, they mean “get the torrent” for it. Judging by this, the situation isn’t good. And yet it’s not as simple as that.

It’s easy for an expat from the US to look at this in a binary way, but as I’ve lived in the country all these years and have had to conduct business here, I’ve encountered all sorts of barriers that are still in place and do not make it easy for Romanians to go the legal route when acquiring media.

Did you know that when you switch your credit card in iTunes from an American credit card to a Romanian bank card, there are no more movies and TV shows for you to purchase or rent? That’s right, those sections of the iTunes store disappear altogether. You still have music, so I suppose that’s something, but to think that Apple still hasn’t worked out the logistics of providing movies and TV shows to their Romanian customers after all these years is ridiculous.

Even more ridiculous, did you know that already purchased TV shows and movies, ones purchased in the US, also disappear from iTunes when you switch to Romania? So if you haven’t downloaded them to your computer, they’re gone.

Oh, but you have downloaded them? Good, then even though you can’t access them from your Apple TV anymore, you can still open them in Quicktime and Airplay them to your Apple TV, right? Wrong. Can’t do that anymore. The Airplay button doesn’t show up anymore. You can still copy them back into iTunes and from there (and only from there) Airplay them to your Apple TV.

Also bonkers is the fact that the software purchased from the App Store with a US credit card can no longer be upgraded or downloaded once you’ve switched to a Romanian bank card. First you’ll get a message saying that you’ll be switched to the Romanian Store.

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Then you’ll get a message saying the software isn’t available for download anymore.

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You can go through the song and dance of signing out, signing back in, deauthorizing and reauthorizing your devices, but you still won’t be able to download your software until you switch back to a US credit card.

At this point you’re probably saying, “This is all fine and good Raoul, but these last few things you’re talking about seem to apply only to expats. Boo-hoo for you, but what about the general Romanian population?” Well, they still can’t buy movies and TV shows from the iTunes Store, remember?

Now, some of you may know that three online streaming services have launched in Romania in 2017: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and HBO Go. This is a great step in the right direction, but it comes with its own set of problems.

The Romanian versions of these services have nowhere near the number of titles available in the US. You get somewhere around 50% of the titles (maybe 60-70%), for about the same price that you pay in the US. You have to keep in mind the average monthly wage in Romania is about $485 (see this), while in the US the average monthly wage is $3396 (see this). That’s a huge difference, and yet Romanians are expected to pay the same prices as the Americans. That sort of ridiculous expectation is found across the board in Romania, for all sorts of products that people need and use.

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Netflix Romania costs me 9.99 Euros a month for HD streaming. There’s also another plan that costs 11.99 Euros a month if you want Ultra HD. And yet the amount of titles available to me are roughly half of those available in the US. I know, because I was able to enjoy the US titles for a number of years after moving to Romania, before Netflix decided to close that access. Now it won’t even work via VPN and I’m stuck having to use their Romanian offering. So in essence, I’m paying double what I’d be paying in the US and most of the stuff I want to watch isn’t available to me. What a great deal they’ve worked out for Romanians, right?

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HBO Go Romania costs half of what Netflix charges, 19,99 lei a month (that’s 4.29 Euros) but once again, they don’t list all of the titles available in the US. I was able to browse through only a few hundred on their site, while the US site says they have more than 4000 titles. Plus, their service doesn’t work on my Apple TV. It also doesn’t work on my iMac. I get a strange error message when I attempt to play most titles on their website: “failed to load license”. When I contacted their tech support, they told me HBO Go Romania isn’t supported on Apple TVs. It also does not work on my iPad or my iPhone, so I can’t connect them directly to my TV either. (It works just fine on these devices in the US, but when you open these apps in Romania, you get an error saying the service is unavailable.) I was advised to use a browser other than Safari, which once again means I can’t Airplay titles to my Apple TV and am stuck watching them at my desk, which I’m not interested in doing. They suggested I try to Chromecast to my Apple TV. Sure… I’m going to fiddle with workarounds because you couldn’t be bothered to do a proper product launch in Romania…

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Amazon Prime Video costs 2.99 Euros a month for the first six months and 5.99 Euros a month after that. It’s the most affordable streaming service and it’s got several shows I like to watch. But once again, they don’t list all of the titles available in the US. However, it works perfectly on my Apple TV and on my computer, so out of the three, I’m happiest with it.

One way both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video (but mostly Netflix) thought they’d make up for the scarcity of titles in their Romanian offering was to scatter their catalogs with Bollywood movies. Because obviously Romanians like watching Bollywood movies. We’re right next to India and historically speaking, our cultures are pretty much identical… WTH, Netflix and Amazon? We’re in Europe! There are a ton of English, French, Italian and German titles you could have added to your services but you give us Bollywood? And oh, let’s not forget Turkish shows… Because there aren’t enough of them on Romanian TV, and because Romanians just love to watch TV programming from a nation that has invaded them over and over and over, has abducted their children to be used as indentured servants and soldiers, raped their women, pillaged their towns and villages, and installed their own puppet regimes to suck most of the wealth out of the country. This wasn’t too long ago, mind you. Romania gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the war of 1877-78 (see this) after hundreds of years of occupation, and they also had to fight them again in WWI.

Let’s look at retail stores now, online or brick and mortar. Say you want to go and buy a movie on Blu-Ray, so you can see it at a proper 1080p resolution. Most of the titles you’ll find in stores are on DVD (that’s 480p resolution) and they cost between 30-50 lei. Who the heck would want to buy DVDs anymore? You can’t even buy a non-HD TV anymore. The cheapest ones you’ll find are at least 720p, so who would buy a 480p movie?

Do you begin to see why piracy is still rampant in Romania? The fastest and easiest way to get an HD movie or TV show in Romania is to download it via a torrent, and not for a lack of trying to get it legally, mind you.

Where’s the Netflix Shelf?

The more movies and shows Ligia and I watch on Netflix, the more convinced we become that Netflix lacks a vital feature. We call it the Shelf. Where is it?

The Netflix Shelf would hold titles we’ve seen and loved. It would contain two collections: a smart collection, which would automatically bring together the titles we’ve rated 4 stars or higher), but more importantly a manual collection, where we could add titles we’d like to watch again in the feature — movies and shows we really love, perennial favorites if you will.

Within the Shelf, we could sort titles by genre, keywords, actor or director (using the metadata added by Netflix staff or metadata we could add ourselves).

There were so many occasions we saw a movie, loved it, wanted to store it somewhere so we could see it again in the future, but didn’t want to leave it in the queue, cluttering up the list of titles we still haven’t seen. There was and is no place for them yet, and that’s regrettable, because it’s a lost opportunity for Netflix to create customer goodwill at a time when they need it.

“The Princess Bride” cast reunite after 24 years

The cast of “The Princess Bride“, one of my all-time favorite movies, reunited recently for a photoshoot featured in Entertainment Weekly, and they gave a couple of interviews afterwards.

What a great movie, and what a great cast! I’m so glad the movie is still well-liked today!

Rampant piracy in Romania

Not sure if you know this, but Romania is a virtual no man’s land when it comes to movies, books and music. Romanians often get to watch movies before they’re in theaters in the US, and there’s a large loophole in Romanian copyright law that makes it nearly impossible to prosecute those who break the law and share digital copies of movies, books or music online.

I consulted with our IP lawyer, and the gist of it is that in Romania, you’re allowed to make a copy of a “book” for “private, home use”. But since there’s no reference to movies or music or anything else in the law, courts extend that same privilege to them. And by “copy”, the courts have come to understand digital copies as well. As long as you don’t charge for them, the courts consider them “private” copies. So that leaves the door wide open for all uninformed (and informed) people to share “private copies” of movies, music and books all over the net.

Back in 2009, I wrote an article about software piracy in Romania, explaining that when software costs $300 to buy (i.e. Windows), a typical Romanian won’t be able to afford it, because that’s their monthly salary. My advice back then, to those who wanted to do the right thing, was to look at Ubuntu, which is free, friendly and completely legal. Now I can add OS X to the list. At $29, it’s certainly affordable for a Romanian, and for the tech savvy people, it shouldn’t be too hard to put together their own Hackintosh. Although not entirely legal, as pointed out in this comment, it’s still a better alternative to running a pirated copy of Windows.

Something I cannot condone though is the piracy of books, movies and music. Their price is affordable to the typical Romanian. A book costs somewhere between $10-30, often even less than that. A movie can cost anywhere from $1-5 to rent and $5-20 to buy — or you can subscribe to Netflix and watch all the movies and TV shows you want for $7.99/month. Music costs $0.99-1.99 per song. There is no excuse for stealing these. Most anyone can save 20-50 RON in order to buy a book or a movie, if they really want it, and anyone can most definitely spare 3 RON to buy a song. And yet, most Romanians don’t. They willfully elect to download pirated movies, music and books whenever they can.

When did it become acceptable to steal something just because you can’t afford it? If you can’t afford it, then you can’t have it. Save up for it and get it later, you’ll appreciate it a lot more than if you steal it.

Want to hear the sad part? It’s not the poor Romanians who are stealing books, movies and music. No, it’s people who have the means to buy these things in the first place, who could afford to part with a few RON in order to get the latest song from their favorite artist, or to see the latest movie. Their lame and legally/morally invalid excuse is that the artist/movie studio/writer is already rich or that everybody’s doing it, because society’s progressing and the old ways no longer work. Which old ways would that be? The need to pay for a service or a good? Well, when I can pay for my utility bills or my mortgage with a movie I downloaded from a torrent website, that’s when we’ll talk about the old ways no longer cutting it.

Since when did someone who has no idea about the hard work that goes behind making a song or a movie or writing a book and getting it published, get to make a judgment about the artist’s financial health or about whether or not it’s okay to steal their work? When did it become okay to steal? This is tantamount to stealing a piece of clothing from a store, or a chocolate from a supermarket.

These same people who complain they have no money then go out and eat at restaurants, they have vacations at sea side resorts, they spend their weekends in the mountains. That is hypocrisy. Ever since my wife and I came to Romania, I keep hearing there’s a financial crisis going on, and everyone’s complaining about how little money they’re making, but whenever I travel the country, mountain resorts are full, seaside resorts are booked up, restaurants are full, coffee shops are full, marketplaces, supermarkets, stores and malls are full of people, everyone’s barbecuing, there are tons of cars on the streets, and money’s flying left and right. Where’s the financial crisis? 

I don’t care if the law’s not up to snuff, stealing’s never okay. Romanians always brag that they’re good Christians. If they were good Christians, they would know the eighth commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal.”

How to watch Netflix from abroad

At the start of 2009, when I left the US to spend most of the year abroad, I was an avid Netflix subscriber, and I looked forward to being one even as I lived abroad. There was a loophole in the Netflix protocols which allowed my wife and I to watch movies from outside the US (see this post), but they plugged it very quickly — within three days after I wrote about it.

I was, needless to say, very disappointed. Here I was, a US citizen, with a US mailing address, a US bank account and a US credit card, wanting to watch movies legally instead of downloading them from torrent websites, not able to do it, just because my IP address happened to be from another country. This was not fair. I cancelled my subscription. In hindsight, my anger was unnecessary. The situation is probably a result of certain stipulations in their contracts with the movie studios.

Still, there’s obviously a need for a legal way to watch movies online, right? And until Netflix (or another company) decides to open up their servers to paying customers from all over the world (which I hear might happen), here’s how to watch Netflix from abroad, right now.

You’ll need:

  1. A US credit card and a US mailing address. If you’re from the US but you happen to be abroad, great, you’re in luck, because you probably still have both of these. If you’re not from the US, see if you can make some arrangements with friends in the US.
  2. A VPN connection that will give you a US IP address, or a DNS Proxy Service subscription which will make Netflix and other US streaming sites think you’re based in the US. 
  3. A computer that’s compatible with Netflix Streaming. At this time, I believe only Mac and Windows computers can do it. The last time I tried it, a Linux machine wasn’t compatible. You could get a Netflix-compatible device or media appliance but if you want to keep things simple, stick with a computer.

That’s all you’ll need.

The DNS Proxy Service is a fairly new offering and is, in my opinion, the easiest way to configure your device to watch Netflix from abroad, without installing any additional software or configuring a custom VPN connection. You simply change the DNS servers for your network card (see these instructions).

Now let me talk a bit about the VPN service. In the two years I’ve spent abroad, I’ve used two services: AceVPN and HideMyNet. I’m currently using HideMyNet for my VPN service, and I’ve been using them for the past four months. Both cost about the same, but from my experience, HideMyNet has faster, more reliable service.

I started out with AceVPN but after several months, I started getting a lot of buffering messages when watching Netflix (you know, where you wait for it to load up the movie). It would take minutes, sometimes 5-10 minutes to load up a movie, and toward the end of my subscription with them, the movie would stop playing multiple times as we watched it, and we had to wait for it to rebuffer. It was annoying, particularly when the movie stopped playing during a gripping scene. Who knows, perhaps they were experiencing growing pains or temporary issues with their servers…

Out of the blue, the folks from HideMyNet contacted me to see if I wanted to try their service and write about it. Disclaimer: they offered me a 1-year subscription to give an honest opinion about their service. I told them I would, but that I’d need to try out their service thoroughly before I spoke about it, and if I found anything negative, I was going to reveal that as well. That was back in April of this year. It’s now August, four months later, and after all this time, I can definitely recommend them.

I do have a few pieces of advice for you:

  • If you’re not sure how to set up a VPN connection as L2TP or PPTP on your Mac, go with OpenVPN and Tunnelblick. Check out their setup instructions for the details. If you’re on Windows, setting up an L2TP connection is super easy and takes only a few minutes.
  • Make sure to ask their Tech Support which of their servers would be faster for you. Here’s some general advice I got from them on this issue: “Generally you want to connect to whichever server is closest to you [geographically]. If you’re in the EU you should try our DC and NYC servers. If you’re in Asia you should try the Seattle or LA servers. If you’re in South America you should try the Dallas and LA servers.” 
  • They currently have a limit of two simultaneously connected devices, so keep that in mind. I believe Netflix has the same limit, but if you were, for example, watching Netflix on one computer and browsing the internet on another, both through their VPN service, you wouldn’t be able to, for example, connect a third device (computer or phone) through the VPN service until you disconnected one of other two.

So there you have it. That’s how you can watch Netflix from abroad. It’s simple, it’s easy and it’s legal.

On a side note, I can’t understand why movie studios prefer to hang on to costly and outdated ways of distributing content, and thus encourage piracy, instead of promoting lower-cost, easily available methods of renting or purchasing their content, for any customer, anywhere. There are many people who would rather pay than use torrents, but the cost is either too high, or there’s no way to pay even if they wanted to. Thank goodness for VPN technology, otherwise I’d start thinking about using the torrents as well.

All the classics, in glorious 1080p

Now that we have the technology to scan movies shot on film into high-definition digital formats (720p and 1080p), and we’ve already done it for some movies like CasablancaNorth by NorthwestThe Italian Job, It’s a Wonderful Life or Home Alone, wouldn’t it be great if we’d re-scan and re-master more of the older movies, some of which are about to disintegrate in Hollywood vaults?

I’ve made a shortlist of films I’d like to see in HD below, culled from my movie collection. These, along with many other movies, ought to be scanned to 1080p HD. They’re wonderful movies, each in their own way, and they shouldn’t rot in some vault, degrading to the point where they’re no longer usable. They should be seen in all the glory and detail in which they were shot.

As a matter of fact, even 1080p HD is a poor substitute for the quality which properly exposed film affords. A 35mm film cell can be scanned at a resolution of up to 20 megapixels, which means the potential resolution of any movie shot on film greatly exceeds what we know as HD (high definition) these days. I’m sure the technology will catch up at some point, but it still has some way to go.

Meanwhile, ponder this: in terms of visual quality, the boon of television during the past 60 years or so has been a veritable dark age. Most everyone other than big budget productions switched to using cameras which recorded to tape, at resolutions of 400-600 vertical lines — the equivalent of 480p. Compare that with 720p or 1080p HD, or for a real shocker, the potential 3000-3500p of a fully equivalent digital reproduction of film quality. It’s sad, really. We’ve cheated ourselves out of visual quality for the sake of convenience, and only now are we starting to regain some of the lost ground.

A couple of other things I’d like to see when it comes to the movies I’ve listed below, or rather, in general when it comes to digital reproduction of analog films: I’d love to see them made into digital, downloadable files instead of optical discs, and I’d love to see some consistently lower pricing. I don’t know how many people will pay $40-50 for a 1080p movie, but I bet a lot more people will pay $15-20 for it. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not really interested in indulgent extras, or extensive behind the scenes productions that crowd out the actual movie.

Without further delay, here’s my list of movies I’d like to see in glorious 1080p HD:

  • A Christmas Carol (1938)
  • A King in New York
  • Airport
  • Along Came Jones
  • Arsenic and Old Lace
  • Big Brown Eyes
  • Big Business Girl
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • Bringing Up Baby
  • Cafe Metropole
  • Captain Blood
  • City Lights
  • Daddy Long Legs
  • Dawn Patrol
  • Destination Tokyo
  • Dinner At Eight
  • Don Juan (1926)
  • Easter Parade
  • Father Goose
  • Follow the Fleet
  • George Washington Slept Here
  • Gold Diggers and its sequels
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips
  • Grand Hotel
  • Grass is Greener
  • Gunga Din
  • Hans Christian Andersen
  • Heidi (1937)
  • House on Haunted Hill
  • How to Steal a Million
  • I Was A Male War Bride
  • In Name Only
  • It Had To Be You
  • It Happened One Night
  • Key Largo
  • Kiss and Make Up (1934)
  • Kiss Me Kate
  • Kiss Them For Me
  • Libeled Lady
  • Love Affair
  • Love Crazy
  • Lover Come Back
  • Luxury Liner
  • Man Hunt
  • Manhattan Melodrama
  • Mary of Scotland
  • Meet Me In St. Louis
  • Midnight
  • Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
  • Monsieur Verdoux
  • Monte Carlo
  • Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House
  • Mr. Deeds Goes To Town
  • Mr. Lucky
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • My Dream Is Yours
  • My Fair Lady
  • My Favorite Wife
  • My Man Godfrey
  • Night Must Fall
  • Ninotchka
  • Northern Pursuit
  • Notorious
  • Now, Voyager
  • On Borrowed Time
  • On The Avenue
  • On The Riviera
  • One Upon A Honeymoon
  • One Way Passage
  • Operation Petticoat
  • People Will Talk
  • Prince of Foxes
  • Private Number
  • Queen Christina
  • Quo Vadis
  • Rachel and the Stranger
  • Rafter Romance
  • Random Harvest
  • Reckless
  • Rendezvous
  • Rhapsody in Blue
  • Rich, Young and Pretty
  • Roman Holiday
  • Sabrina
  • Safety Last (1923)
  • Scrooge
  • Secret Garden
  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
  • Spartacus (1960)
  • Springtime in the Rockies (1942)
  • Stage Door
  • Step Lively Jeeves
  • Swing Time (1936)
  • Tell It To The Judge
  • Thank You Jeeves
  • Thank Your Lucky Stars
  • That Forsyte Woman
  • That Touch of Mink
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
  • The Amazing Adventure (1936)
  • The Ambassador’s Daughter
  • The Awful Truth (1937)
  • The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer
  • The Baroness and the Butler
  • The Bishop’s Wife
  • The Court Jester
  • The Doctor Takes a Wife
  • The Farmer’s Daughter
  • The Glass Bottom Boat
  • The Good Fairy
  • The Great Dictator
  • The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
  • The Heavenly Body
  • The Man Who Came To Dinner
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
  • The Mark of Zorro (1920)
  • The Millionaire (1931)
  • The Mysterious
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • The Prince and the Pauper
  • The Princess Bride
  • The Shop Around the Corner
  • The Thin Man and all its sequels
  • The Woman in the Window
  • Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
  • Three Coins in the Fountain
  • Three Daring Daughters
  • Three Little Words
  • Three Loves Has Nancy
  • To Catch a Thief
  • Too Many Husbands
  • Topaze
  • Topper
  • Two Weeks With Love
  • Walk, Don’t Run
  • Wedding Present (1936)
  • Weekend at the Waldorf
  • When Ladies Meet
  • White Christmas
  • Wife vs. Secretary
  • You Can’t Take It With You

Star Wars and Kings Row theme songs are quite alike

When we watched Kings Row (1942) recently, I couldn’t help noticing a marked similarity between its theme song, written by Erich Korngold, and the main Star Wars (1977) theme song, written by John Williams.

I doubted I was the only one to hear it, and sure enough, a quick internet search revealed many others talking about the same thing. See Wikipedia, or this YouTube video comparing the two theme songs.

Sixty-eight years after the release of Kings Row, and 33 years after the release of Star Wars, this isn’t as big a deal as it probably was back then. In my opinion, Williams’ remaking of the Korngold theme is much better suited to its movie than Korngold’s was for its intended vehicle — and it is a re-making, not a plagiarized copy. Korngold’s theme sounds much too dramatic for a coming-of-age movie set in a turn of the century provincial American town, but it’s perfect for a futuristic sci-fi movie that was (and is) one of the biggest box office successes of all time.

Still, it’s an uncanny resemblance, isn’t it?

Images used courtesy of Amazon.