To compete with Netflix, online piracy is upping its game

Originally posted in WIRED

Apple’s move into the streaming video industry is the industry’s worst-kept secret, but while the shift into creating video content is a new one for the company, another issue will be sorely familiar: the risk of piracy.

Nearly 190 billion visits were made to illegal piracy websites in 2018, according to MUSO, a company that tracks the scale of digital piracy – 5.75bn of which came from the UK (and a further 17.4bn from the US). Almost half of all visits to piracy websites were for television shows, with nearly one in five visitors to illicit sites seeking out the latest film.

MUSO’s figures for 2018 show a slight drop in the amount of privacy compared to the previous year. In 2017, it says, there were 206bn visits to pirate sites. But the illegitimate video industry is mimicking its legitimate peers, says Andy Chatterley of MUSO.

“People have moved largely to on-demand [streaming] and away from downloading, in a similar way that people have moved away from iTunes to Spotify,” he says. “Whether they’re paying for it or not, they want to access things when they want.” Six in ten visits to piracy sites las year were to illicit streaming services – with torrenting, once a popular method of accessing illegal content, dropping in popularity.

Convenience is a key reason for people taking the illegal route when hunting out their favourite TV shows and films, reckons Chatterley – and illicit websites are starting to make their user interfaces more user-friendly for that exact purpose.

It’s a similar move to one we saw four years ago with the rise of Popcorn Time, an illegal movie sharing program singled out by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings as a major competitor back in 2015. Popcorn Time’s slick front page was the equal of Netflix – a world away from the dark old days of wrangling VPNs and downloading a raft of new software just to be able to access shaky rips of Hollywood screeners.

That idea of illegal platforms pushing forward innovation has continued today. “Some of these sites you go to, the dashboard experience is better than the paid subscription services,” says Chatterley. That builds up brand loyalty – last year saw a ten per cent increase in people directly visiting big-name illegal streaming sites, rather than finding them through search engines.

But it’s not just a lack of friction that makes movie sharing so popular. Many consumers now don’t see why illegal streaming or download is seen as a bad thing, in large part thanks to the attitude of Netflix and Amazon Prime’s towards account sharing. “The more digital services allow sharing of passwords, the more people think of it as they’re okay with me doing it, so I’ll just go download a piece of content,” says Frost & Sullivan streaming video analyst Dan Rayburn. “I don’t think consumers think it’s stealing.”

There’s also an element of subscription fatigue, says Chatterley – something likely to be made even worse by a slate of more high-quality original programming appearing on yet another service looking to separate us from our cash, none of which overlaps with others. “It’s inevitable that people are not going to pay for four or five different subscriptions to four or five different platforms,” he explains. “If you can access everything with a single click, of course you’re going to do that.”

While on-demand streaming services need to have their own original content to attract audiences, the fragmentation of content across competing services can mean someone who loves Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, The Grand Tour and whatever Apple decided to launch with has to sign up to multiple services – all of which take money out of their bank account.

As a result, the core base of people accessing illegal websites has broadened out – significantly. “We have to stop thinking this audience is the traditional pirate in our imagination,” says Chatterley. “The reality is these are probably people who do subscribe to multiple platforms, who do have sports subscriptions, but access other sports online because it’s not available in their region or they have too many subscriptions.”

While Chatterley is reticent to lay the blame at the platform providers for giving people an excuse to turn to privacy, he believes a rethink is required. “There’s an opportunity here,” he says. “There are huge amounts of demand, and we ignore that audience demand. It’s important to try not to leave pirated content online, but at the same time, the audience is something that has to be valued.”

The battle with piracy is one any company – whether Netflix, Amazon or Apple – is likely to lose in the long run. “I don’t care what steps you’re going to take, you can’t keep 100 per cent of your content protected at all times,” says Rayburn.

By Chris Stokel-Walker
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