I thought long and hard about writing this article. On the one hand, I essentially admit to violating copyright laws. On the other hand, it happened almost 10 years ago, it was a good life lesson, it’s a pretty fascinating story, and I believe in being completely honest about my past. Currently, I’m probably one of very few people who actually pay for music and movies instead of downloading illegally. I’m not a fan of the iTunes store, but love AmieStreet.com and AmazonMP3. Now, with that all said, the original article specified the exact product I was selling. I decided to edit that out because I live in the land of lawsuits. I know it makes for a more difficult read, but that’s the way it has to be. Even though the product I was selling still isn’t available for legal sale, the copyright owner (I’m a big fan, I follow his blog) gets pissed about the consistent rampant sale of his material (and rightfully so). So with all of that out of the way….
At 19 years old I was pulling in over $1,000/week on eBay selling bootleg copies of my one of my favorite TV shows, [Show In Question].
Being that I was on a full academic scholarship and living with my Parents I didn’t exactly need $1k/week. But when your family moves to the US with 2 suitcases, no grasp of the language, and almost no money, you either hustle (as Gary Vaynerchuk says, “CRUSH IT!”) or stay impoverished.
My Parents hustled (learned English, worked their asses off) and reached a nice middle class standard of living.
As a result, I learned to hustle at a very young age.
In 3rd grade, my elementary school had a Readathon for Multiple Sclerosis. Anybody who raised $500 or more got a Nintendo Game Boy (it was 1989). I was the only kid in the school of 400+ to do so.
In 8th grade, one of my gifted nerd classes had a fundraiser selling chocolate bars to raise money for a trip to Chicago. The rest of the kids went door to door selling bars one at a time. Or had their Parents sell the bars at work. Me? I called local businesses (salons worked best) and sold them by the box. I bought one of my favorite Nirvana bootlegs on that trip. :)
And maybe the ultimate teenage hustle: While most of my peers relied on Parents or student loans to pay for college I “studied” (high school was such a joke I didn’t really have to) hard enough to get the aforementioned scholarship.
So, you see, the hustle is in every fiber of my being.
The seeds to my foray into the underworld of copyright violation were planted in my Senior year at Adlai Stevenson High School in Sterling Heights, MI. My friend and classmate Samantha (name has been changed) was a big fan of [Show In Question] and turned me on to its hilarity.
This low budget show consisted of [Proper noun1] and [Proper noun2] and their friends being so off-the-wall-weird most people probably had to be drunk or high to enjoy it. It was one of the few highlights of [Cable TV Station] in the late 90s and I was neither drunk nor high.
By the time college rolled around [Show In Question] was off the air and we couldn’t watch it anymore. I’d check the show’s Web site regularly for video release dates, but it didn’t look promising.
So I did what any smart young lad would do. I searched eBay.
And there it was.
Seasons 1 and 2 of [Show In Question] available for sale. Bootleg VHS, of course. I wasn’t above watching shitty versions of the best show ever made.
The price was unreasonably steep. $70 shipped. For 2 VHS tapes that cost $1 each.
No matter. I immediately clicked Buy It Now, for I had a plan.
“Don’t say you can’t afford something, ask yourself how you can afford it.” – paraphrased Robert Allen quote which I probably use way too often and took a little too far in this situation.
A few days later the videos came, I watched them to verify they were decent quality (while laughing my ass off, of course) and put my plan into play.
I logged into my eBay seller account and put up a Buy It Now ad:
“[Show In Question] Seasons 1 and 2 – Great Quality! Free Shipping!”
Within hours I had $70 (less credit card fees) in my Paypal account.
It was too easy.
I put up another ad.
Again, within hours I got that beautiful “You’ve sold item #123814883” e-mail.
One problem. I didn’t have any copies made yet.
The next morning I rushed out to Best Buy, bought the most expensive VCR they had (~$120), took my Parents’ VCR from the living room and hooked them together.
I’d never copied VHS to VHS before but it was surprisingly easy. For the next few weeks these VCRs were my own personal ATM machine, spitting out $70 3 times/day.
If I timed my school/sleep schedule just right I could get 4 copies of [Show In Question] done in 1 day. At my peak I pulled in almost $2,000 in one week.
It all came to a crashing halt when I got a “Your eBay Account Has Been Canceled Due To Multiple Copyright Violations” e-mail.
eBay had sent me warnings on two separate occasions.
But you know how it is, “beg for forgiveness, don’t ask for permission.” I figured I could get away with it as long as other people were also selling the same material.
So I ignored the warnings.
Unfortunately, begging for forgiveness didn’t work. Try as I might they wouldn’t reinstate my account. And if you don’t know anything about eBay, their customer service is customer service-less, so it took days to receive responses to my communications.
I created a new account, but my bank info (used for account verification) was black listed, and the new eBay account was immediately canceled.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I’d already been out of business for over a week and it was getting to me.
I just couldn’t leave well enough alone. There was gold in them thar VCRs and I was gonna mine it! The tools of the trade at this gold mine were wit, piss, and vinegar. Me vs eBay. Let’s do this!
“Hey Mom, I need your bank account information and a credit card!”
Being the trusting Parent she is, she handed it over like it was the most normal thing in the world.
I was a straight A student, disciplined, a hard worker: my Parents didn’t really have a reason not to trust me. (Yes, I realize how stupid it was to get anybody else involved in this. Sorry Mom, I love you!)
And I was back in business.
For 2 days.
I got another copyright violation warning and this time there was no messing around. eBay must have done a manual review because almost immediately after the warning e-mail I got an account cancellation e-mail.
Unfortunately, to this day [Show In Question] isn’t available for sale legally, although bootleg copies and torrent downloads are easily available.
I did procure another eBay account so I could continue selling strictly legal items, but I was out of the copyright violations business for good. That is, until 4 years later when I became a search engine spammer…