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How content piracy has evolved with the rise of OTT

Content piracy – whether it is of a song, movie or any other piece of art – has been a challenge for decades. Downloading a movie, illegally, before its theatrical release or official TV premiere, is the most common form of piracy we know. The same goes for music, too.

Last year, thanks to the lockdown, theatres had downed shutters for the most part, saw some relief earlier this year, only to be closed again owing to the second Covid-19 wave. Not just did consumers turn to OTT platforms for entertainment, but so did filmmakers and production houses; several released their films on the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Zee5 or Disney+Hotstar. Fresh content releases became par for the course on OTT.

Recently, Zee Studios’ recent Salman Khan-starrer ‘Radhe’ had leaked on platforms like Telegram and WhatsApp. The production company filed an FIR at the Mumbai Cyber Cell, and a few were booked for downloading and selling pirated versions of the movie. Khan himself took to Twitter, to warn fans against engaging in piracy.

However, piracy existed way before OTT ever did. In the new context, what does it mean in the context of streaming platforms? How can they up their privacy game to secure their content from this theft?

Cons of the pay-per-view (PPV) model  
Content leaked on unofficial platforms can lead to huge losses in revenue for filmmakers and producers, in a very short span of time.

Weighing in on this, Ambi Parameswaran, founder, Brand-Building, said, “Newspapers and magazines have been struggling with this for over a year. All the newspapers in the world, including the leading Indian papers, are downloaded and shared on platforms like Telegram,” adding that he knew someone who had a list of 3,000 people who regularly received these newspapers and magazines.

The Indian media and entertainment sector reached $25.7 billion in 2019, registering a growth of 9%, as compared to the previous year, according to the FICCI report released by EY. Divya Dixit, SVP, marketing and revenue, ALTBalaji, stated that these numbers could grow at a much faster rate, if piracy ceased to exist. “Content piracy pulls the OTT platform two steps back by striking the business directly, as the potential audience downloads shrink and existing audiences view pirated content. It affects the revenue as well.”

Karan Bedi, CEO, MX Player, claims that the impact of damage caused by piracy accounts for billions of dollars a year. He also adds that problems intensify when content is released without a theatrical release or on a PPV site.

Efforts at securing content
Reports have shown that a lot of applications and websites that offer pirated content, do not fall under the Indian jurisdiction. This makes it harder for OTT players to devise strategies to steer clear of their content being stolen and shared.

Dixit states that ALTBalaji’s content is DRM-protected (digital rights management) and that the company has several digital tools to strike down illegal content that violates its copyrights. “These don’t work as a foolproof measure. However, as the OTT landscape is ever-evolving and hackers come out with new techniques every day, our DRM measures have to keep evolving to match the pace.”

Agreeing with Dixit, Bedi explains, “People have to be educated that piracy of content is akin to stealing, even though it’s not a physical good that you’re robbing, content costs money to make and people are affected economically.”

Platforms like MX Player, which follow an ad-led model offering free content, are also victims of privacy.

Bedi is focused on weakening the top distribution channels. “Our viewers just have to watch ads. You have to constantly be on the lookout for at least 80% of distribution channels that engage in this activity. Figure out the top five or six that enable downloading of pirated content and use that as a starting point.”

Getting people to view piracy as a real crime
The campaign for the 2019 film ‘URI: The Surgical Strike’ makes for a classic example of creating public awareness against piracy.

The brainchild Dentsu Webchutney had created a fake version of the film, with a message from the real actors and uploaded it on torrents, as bait for people who would land up downloading the pirated version.

Speaking of the surgical strike it conducted on torrents, Sidharth Rao, chairman, Dentsu Webchutney and Dentsu mcgarrybowen India, said, “Everyone wanted to watch it and hence the problems were bigger. We realised one of the biggest platforms for films apart from regular social media platforms is torrents. But preaching doesn’t help. The idea was to make people aware of the problem and you can’t do that till you address it on its playground.”

Rao added that the movie did feature on torrents, but created a great awareness amongst people, which before the campaign was a battle only fought by artists and filmmakers.

However, Parameswaran makes a case saying, “The magic of a first day, first show and the collective euphoria of a new movie release drives box office collections and might have to come back to save the film industry.”

Radhe controversy  
Parameswaran is of the view that everyone awaited the release of a big-budget film to see how PPV would work. “I am sure the producers were aware of the problems with piracy. Probably they were hoping that the diehard fans will pay for content and not take it for free. Unfortunately, that has not happened.”

Bedi believes that the consumer mindset is slowly getting better, but the piracy issue will never boil down to zero. “Everybody knew that the film ‘Radhe’ was available on the app and you could pay a certain amount and watch it and yet, an untold number of people pirated it.”

Zee5 is the official streaming partner of the film and has instilled a three-pronged approach comprising origin and content protection, and piracy prevention to curb the problem. “We continue to evaluate successful global use cases, invest in them, and work closely with global technology partners and leading content security communities to fight against piracy,” a Zee5 spokesperson added.

Real-time fix
Parameswaran explains how nudging viewers to avoid free content could be a hard pass. He pens down a few real-time solutions that can help root out piracy. “In the case of movies released in theatres, every single print is watermarked, so that if a viewer shares it, it can be traced back. So, any theatre that allows piracy from its premises can be located and blacklisted. The same may have to be done with PPV. Or better still a print is viewable only for a few hours after purchase.” He also points out that the implementation complexity is the reason why PPV has not been a success in many countries.

From a creative standpoint, Rao believes that agencies need to treat this problem differently. He says, “Understand that the universe of the internet is multiplying by the second. If we think that we can put a stop to piracy with one campaign, one idea, one innovation, it is impossible. While OTT players are constantly working towards stronger security layers, we need to keep the awareness engine running. Leverage the reach of the entertainment industry and content, and get more and more people to know about the problem. Only when everyone knows about the problem, you can solve it.”

Dixit’s suggestion for this is a regulatory framework for piracy, which she calls the need of the hour.

The company agrees that this phenomenon is rapidly tiptoeing its way into companies’ revenue and reach. “While the OTT industry is finding ways to curb piracy, people do not believe it is a crime to consume pirated content in India and that perception needs to change on an immediate basis via various industries as well as brand campaigns.”

Zee’s spokeperson says that this phenomenon is rapidly tiptoeing its way into companies’ revenue and reach. “While the OTT industry is finding ways to curb piracy, people do not believe it is a crime to consume pirated content in India and that perception needs to change on an immediate basis via various industries as well as brand campaigns,” a Zee spokesperson concluded.

That being said, Bedi is certain that no matter how high-end the security, eradication of piracy will always be a constant battle, which would render someone or the other to break into the security systems and challenge this narrative. Campaign Asia

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