Winning the fight against digital piracy in the Netflix era

The television series “13 Reasons Why” has been a major hit for Netflix, making stars of its cast members – some have secured film roles and commercial contracts – and cementing the streaming service’s appeal with younger viewers including, news reports have indicated, many in the UAE.

Based on a bestselling young adult novel about the factors behind a high school pupil’s suicide, “13 Reasons Why” drew in enough viewers to its recent second season that Netflix announced in early June that there would be a third round in 2019.

The show has, however, sparked the interest of some viewers that company executives are unlikely to want to attract: people who do not pay a Netflix subscription

Along with another Netflix programme, “Orange Is The New Black”, the series has been highlighted as being one of the most watched programmes on a popular pirate streaming website.

Such sites are drawing in vast numbers of users.

MUSO, a technology company offering products that help organisations measure and combat piracy, said in figures released in March that video piracy sites receive more than 0.5 billion visits a day, with over half going to streaming sites.

The company’s 2017 global piracy report also detailed the eye-wateringly high popularity of music piracy sites, reporting that they attracted almost 74 billion visits last year. Indeed, music piracy is said to have reached new highs in the first half of 2017, while increases were also seen in gaming and film piracy.

MUSO’s figures appear to represent a sharp dose of reality after suggestions from some observers that piracy was fading thanks to the affordable and easy access to large amounts of material offered by paid-for streaming services.

Traffic through BitTorrent – a peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol – has, indeed, fallen dramatically. In 2003, peer-to-peer file sharing reportedly had a 60 percent share of peak downstream traffic in North America, while recent figures suggest that this has dropped to less than two percent. The inconvenience of finding a file and downloading it, along with other steps, has put viewers off.

Yet in a statement released to coincide with the publication of the 2017 report, Andy Chatterley, MUSO’s co-founder and CEO, said that the suggestion that the piracy problem had been resolved by the popularity of on-demand services like Spotify and Netflix “doesn’t stack up”. This is because pirate viewers, in moving away from BitTorrent, have turned instead to pirate streaming services.

“With the data showing us that 53 percent of all piracy happens on unlicensed streaming platforms, it has become clear that streaming is the most popular way for consumers to access content, whether it be via legitimate channels, or illegitimate ones,” says Chatterley in a previous statement.

The scale of piracy is such that an estimate from last year put the financial effects on the likes of Netflix and other streaming sites, including Amazon Prime Video, at more than $50 billion between 2016 and 2022.

The United States is the largest market for piracy, followed by Russia, although other parts of the world are also seeing growth. Janne Riekkinen, a researcher at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland who recently completed doctoral research looking at streaming media piracy, says that “piracy appears to be particularly common in the Middle East and Asia”.

Current efforts to combat streaming piracy, he says, “don’t work that well,” with efforts to block and take down illegal sites only effective “to a certain degree”.

“This is a technological race between the pirates and the content providers,” says Riekkinen. “The pirate community, those who come up with illegal copies, they’re quite advanced in their race.”

But efforts to combat piracy go well beyond the technological: appealing to people’s better nature may yield results.

Pirates regularly employ mental techniques to justify and defend their actions, something known as “neutralisation techniques”.

“They may take forms such as, ‘Everybody else is pirating, so I can too’ [and], ‘Piracy causes no harm.’ In the criminology tradition, countering or discrediting these neutralisation techniques is seen as a method to curb offending,” said Riekkinen.

Research indicates, says Riekkinen, that neutralization is especially common in Asian societies, possibly because they are more collectivist, with social standing and conforming to norms being more highly valued. A 2012 study suggested, he says, that, “The moral obligation to not pirate has less effect on piracy intentions and behaviours in the Middle East (Kuwait) than in the west (USA).”

“Religion is central in Middle Eastern cultures, and researchers have studied the possibility of utilising religious leaders in anti-piracy communication. Based on their findings, this approach might have some merit,” he says.

“[Also], based on my research, the introduction of legal SVOD [Streaming/Subscription video on demand] services has weakened neutralization and made piracy less acceptable in the eyes of the public. The improvement and expansion of SVOD services may continue this trend.”

Although content producers have made efforts to clamp down in piracy – just over a year ago, Netflix and Amazon became founder-members of the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment, which aims to cut online piracy – some researchers are unsure that piracy does significant damage.

Particularly with music piracy, the net effect could sometimes be beneficial, suggests Dr Joao Quintais, one of three researchers at the University of Amsterdam involved in the ongoing “Global online piracy study”, an initiative run in association with the Dutch-based research and consultancy company Ecorys. For example, Quintais says that research has shown that people who have illegally sampled a particular artist’s work might be more likely to go to one of that artist’s concerts.

“Most studies have shown there’s some negative effect [of piracy]; in some cases it’s outweighed by the positive,” he adds.

Even the likes of Netflix might not be suffering significant harm. Professor Tilman Baumgärtel, editor of “A Reader on International Media Piracy,” sees Netflix as being more concerned with extending the reach of its brand and its shows.

“Making money is not what they’re about right now; they just want to reach anybody, by whatever means necessary,” he explains.

“If piracy makes more people familiar with ‘Daredevil’ or ’13 Reasons Why’, there is nothing wrong with piracy.

“That also explains the huge investments they are making in content – nobody knows if they will ever be able to earn that money back, but it does not matter. It is all about getting people’s attention. The same goes for the super-competitive pricing.”

Recent results indicate, though, that Netflix is adding subscribers at a breathless pace, and its turnover and income are also increasing rapidly, suggesting that its heavy investments in content are paying off.

In any case, some observers do not think that attempts to enforce anti-piracy rules are the best approach. With sufficient income and reasonably priced legal services, “people are generally willing to pay”, says Quintais.

“If people have enough money, most will likely go for the convenience [of legitimate streaming services]; it’s much easier to go on Spotify than go on Pirate Bay and download,” he said.

“This calls into question whether you always need more enforcement, or whether the solution isn’t better sought in the business side of things.”

Baumgärtel, who teaches at the University of Applied Sciences, Mainz, also questions the value of enforcement. There is not much, he says, that providers can do about piracy.

“For every illegal streaming service that goes down, three new ones pop up. Fighting piracy with legal means is a long-term affair, as fighting peer-to-peer piracy has shown. In the end, the death knell for these services was not the number of people that the media industry dragged into court, but the more convenient services like Spotify,” he adds.


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