When my favorite torrent site, isoHunt.com, was back in the news thanks to yet another lawsuit over illegal downloading, I was reminded of a post on their blog from a few months ago. The poster quoted from Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture to define five kinds of file-sharers, and asked which kind most isoHunters were.

The choices were:

A.) You file-share instead of purchasing media

B.) You file-share to sample media you wouldn’t otherwise buy blind

C.) You file-share to get media that’s still in copyright, but no longer sold or sold at far too high a price

D.) You file-share to get media that’s not copyrighted or that the copyright holder is giving away

E.) You file-share to replace media you’ve previously bought―either you lost the original, or it was too crippled by DRM to be usable

The results of this little poll were quite interesting. Choice A (40%) was the runaway leader, but still less than half of respondents, and followed fairly closely by B (23%) and C (23%). D (3%) was predictably last, but there are many other ways to get non-copyrighted media. E got 8%. (And I couldn’t help noticing that there was no “all of the above” option―I have to imagine many, if not most, file-sharers have done all of these.)

More than half these anonymous, self-selected, admittedly file-sharing respondents described their sharing as not replacing a sale (i,e, not A), or what I would call non-malicious. The reasons behind that non-malicious file-sharing expose a backlash―intentional or not―against age-old media company practices that attempt to manipulate and deceive their customers.

If the RIAA and others really care about file-sharing, they’ll take an honest look at why their customers do it.

As a media consumer, it’s not hard to feel alienated by the big content companies, and not just because of the recent ridiculous lawsuits penalizing downloaders thousands of dollars per pirated song.

Those content companies cancel our favorite shows; they shut down DRM servers, rendering legally bought music worthless; they lie (or at least deceive) on the covers of books to sell more copies. They essentially make it clear that their first and only priority is money, and they couldn’t care less about their paying customers, as long as they’ve paid.

For instance, that anti-piracy ad you’ve seen? As one parodist points out, it mostly just annoys paying customers, those who’ve bought a legal DVD.

And yetwhile I have no love in my heart for any big media companyI still happily buy plenty of media of all kinds. I go to the movies. I buy albums I could easily download for free. I use Netlfix, I listen to Pandora, I watch Hulu. And all I want in return for my money, and my watching their ads, and my being tricked far too often by overzealous marketing covering for bad products―all I want is guaranteed access to the movies and TV shows and music and books I love.

Take Arrested Development. I’ve downloaded the entire show. I’ve also bought the DVD box set about half a dozen times, for myself and others. Now the entire series is on Hulu, and that’s how I’d watch it today, ads and all.

This is a Big Content success. They’ve given as good a guarantee as they ever will that Arrested Development will be available forever, and they can continue to make money off it. [Edit: Hulu can now only show one season of AD at a time. Perhaps I gave them too much credit with that “guarantee” line.]

Then there’s the counterexample, another one of my favorite TV shows: Sons and Daughters. It was on ABC for 10 episodes in 2006, and then it was cancelled. DVDs are nowhere to be found. Literally the only way to watch Sons and Daughters is to “illegally” download the torrent. I don’t enjoy ripping off production companies (or, moreso, the creators of the shows, music, and books I love). However, I want to watch Sons and Daughters more than I care about who’s not getting paid.

It wouldn’t take much for me not to download that show, or others like it: all it would take is a guarantee. I’d want to know that Sons and Daughters will be on Hulu forever. I want to know that companies won’t shut down their DRM servers as soon as it gets financially uncomfortable to keep them up. If we had such guarantees, pirating would plummet. Studies have already shown plummeting music piracy thanks to online streaming services.

I’m not alone. The entire DVD sales industry is based on people being willing to pay a premium to have guaranteed permanent access to their favorite shows and movies.

Sons and Daughters is an extreme example, but media companies jerk customers around all the time. Shows expire on Hulu, DVD releases are delayed for months in order to coerce moviegoers to go to the theater, hardcovers cost double what paperbacks do, and remember all those decades they spent charging you $18 for albums like 11th Song, when all you wanted was Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

This is the behavior that now inspires file-sharing, for better or for worse. If they give us what we want, no one (or many fewer people) will steal it. I’m not saying that people stealing media should bring content companies to their knees (although it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world), but they should at least acknowledge and understand the reasons why people file-share, and that a lot of those people are not degenerate criminals, but savvy superfans who’ve gotten wise to DRM.

Maybe there’s even a middle ground out there somewhere, between locking up your customers and ripping them off, where everybody would be happy.