Let’s talk about bootlegs.

For various reasons, even as we have more ways to watch television shows, we have fewer and fewer shows we can actually watch, particularly if we’re talking about a show that’s no longer on the air. Syndicated reruns aren’t as plentiful; cable doesn’t have as many reruns as it used to; Hulu has a limited selection and isn’t available in Canada anyway; shows get pulled off of YouTube; and the TV-on-DVD boom is over.

At the same time, it’s a lot easier now than it was fifteen years ago to get bootleg copies of shows that aren’t available anywhere else. It used to be that these trades were carried out with cumbersome VHS tapes; most people couldn’t really trade more than a few episodes at a time. Now, of course, if someone has all the episodes of a series on tape, they can transfer them to DVD and then make as many copies as they want, then trade them with their friends and sell them online.

When you go to Ioffer.com, which appears to have become the Ebay of bootlegs, it’s surprising and, in a way, heartening just how many TV shows are offered for sale, shows that aren’t rerun, will never be on DVD, and will probably never be posted on any “official” site. That 1989 sitcom I posted over the weekend? The whole series is available. Frank’s Place? That’s there.

And some shows, of course, are so badly butchered in their commercial releases that you’re better off looking for someone who taped the shows off TV. Fastlane, the one-season Fox cult show, recently came out on DVD with the music eviscerated, even the theme song. Anyone who actually wants to see the series as it aired has no real choice except to go to a bootlegger; same with the first season of My Name Is Earl, or the ending of that How I Met Your Mother episode where the DVD removed the closing “Dirty Dancing” punchline.

Is it unethical to buy a bootleg? Of course it is, at least to some extent. The people who made the shows fought long and hard for the right to get royalties from repeats of their work, and they get nothing from bootlegs. If you assume that the participants deserve something, and I think they do, then it can never be completely ethical to purchase bootlegs, quite apart from the legal issues.

But of course we often don’t have the option to buy the commercial DVD releases and give the creators their cut; if the show is not available anywhere, or if it’s not available in its original form, then the bootleg is the only option; it’s the only way people will get to see the show at all. Some TV writer-producers have actually bought bootlegs of their own shows because they didn’t save any tapes of the original (participants get tapes of the shows; they don’t always hold on to them). Others have been known to encourage fans to buy bootlegs or watch the YouTub’d versions of the episodes before they’re taken down. (In one case, a producer suggested to me that I watch his cult flop show on YouTube even though it was commercially available on DVD; he just wanted to make sure I’d see it before I wrote the article.)

Of course, the biggest problem with bootlegs is not the moral problem, but that there’s really no such thing as quality control or consumer protection. It’s impossible to know for certain what you’re getting, what’s a fair price for the series, or what the picture quality will be. Bootleggers compound the problem by trying to get too many episodes onto too few DVDs. (They’re now making burnable DVDs with two layers, like commercial DVDs, allowing for more time on the discs, but those discs are more expensive to buy.) Occasionally you’ll luck into a show where the bootlegger somehow got a hold of DVD-quality master tapes; I’ve heard that some of the Batman bootlegs — for the ’60s series which is tied up in legal limbo — actually come from a set of original-length master tapes smuggled out of a TV station. But for the most part you have to lower your expectations; what you will usually get, at best, is the quality you get from your own old VHS tapes of TV shows. That’s not such a bad thing, at least for TV; one reason why bootlegs are a better medium for TV shows than movies is that TV shows really weren’t meant to be seen in the absolute highest quality, not until the HD era, anyway.

And of course, different bootlegs circulate for the same show, and it’s almost impossible to know which one is the better one, or which seller is the more reputable. (This gets even worse if the show ran long enough to get syndicated, because you don’t know if you’re getting the complete episodes or the syndicated versions, and the sellers either don’t know, don’t care, or won’t tell.) I think that will change — as time goes on there will be more information available about what exactly is on these bootleg sets, and maybe someone will even do a TV Shows On DVD-style website about the contents and sources. But for now it’s a tricky game that most of us don’t understand, yet that we’ll have to learn to play if we want to see rare shows.

One good rule of thumb is not to buy bootlegs from any site that advertises itself as if it were a legitimate business site — you know, “Best TV Shows” or titles like that. You’re more likely to get better prices and better service by dealing with someone on a one-on-one basis. But this rule may turn out to be wrong; there might be a really first-rate site for bootleg shows; I just don’t know what it is yet. Bootlegging is old, but bootlegging TV shows is still a newish and growing business, and there’s a lot to learn about it. We have time to learn, because it’s going to be a part of our lives for a while.

(Insane deranged side note: I keep waiting for someone to do a joke where somebody says “Let’s talk about bootlegs” and then adds: “By the way, how do my legs look in these boots?” It would be a perfect line for Cerie on 30 Rock.)

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.