In the 2000s, I arrived at university to vast libraries, thousands of strangers and the riches of academic life – plus a gigabit broadband connection that would be used on downloading pirated versions of every piece of entertainment ever made. In between essays, I watched classic movies, listened to vast discographies, and binged the entire run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That particular choice might mark this story out as one that belongs firmly in the past, but piracy itself is far from dead.
We are living in a golden age of streaming. Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ are pumping out award-winning shows. Britain’s public service broadcasters have more box sets than you can consume in a lifetime. If you have a niche interest, someone is streaming it for you somewhere: Sony’s Crunchyroll for anime fans, BFI Player for film buffs, Sky’s History Play for those who really like ancient aliens. And even before the pandemic forced film studios to experiment with simultaneous cinema and home releases, we had access to more films and shows than any other point in history.
Growing old disgracefully … Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in Grace and Frankie.
‘Netflix is a lifesaver!’ The over-65s embracing the streaming boom
But as the new releases keep coming, the bills start growing. If your interests are decidedly mainstream, the basic tiers of the five largest paid-for streaming services in the UK – the aforementioned US giants, plus Sky’s Now TV – will cost you almost £40 a month. Drop any one of them, and you will inevitably miss out on the pop culture craze of the month: no Now TV means no The White Lotus; no Disney+ means no Marvel.
So it is no wonder that an increasing number of viewers are turning, or returning, to less legitimate services. In 2021, we’re no longer reminded that we “wouldn’t steal a car” on anti-piracy adverts, but piracy never went away – and it’s now more appealing than ever.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Piracy was meant to follow the path set by the music industry: where technological change initially enabled new forms of copyright infringement, then spurred rejuvenation, settling into a new equilibrium.
Napster, and then peer-to-peer filesharing, were the innovations that rocked music. Global recorded music sales peaked in 1999, at $25.2bn, then bottomed out 14 years later at barely half that. Illegal downloading wasn’t just cheaper than buying CDs, it was also more convenient than traipsing to the high street. But music streaming, arriving with the launch of Spotify, changed everything. Streaming meant instant access and a better user experience than piracy. Where legal downloads peaked at 27% of the industry’s total revenue in 2014, last year streaming made up 62% of music revenue, with 2020 seeing the highest earnings since 2003.
The hope was that the film industry would repeat music’s success in tackling piracy. The shift from VHS to DVDs to Blu-rays wasn’t as phenomenally successful for film and television as the CD boom was for music; cinema and broadcast rights still made the lion’s share of revenue. But when download speeds increased, piracy became an ever bigger problem.
“In any phase of technological development, you see rapid changes in the illegal market, which are quicker than the changes in the legal market,” says Kieron Sharp, chief executive of the UK anti-piracy group Fact (it of the “You wouldn’t steal a car” adverts). “If you don’t continually fight the pirates and those stealing your content, it’s going to be a bit of a free-for-all.”
Video piracy, which had been a matter of low-level criminal gangs selling counterfeit DVDs on the street when Sharp joined Fact, boomed in the late 00s. The legal market quickly responded: former DVD-subscription service Netflix began streaming in January 2007, while BBC’s iPlayer launched by the end of the same year. It seemed the video industry would follow music’s path: disruption, response, equilibrium. But over the last decade, the differences between the two sectors have become clear, and the blame could lie with House of Cards.
Netflix’s 2013 adaptation of the Michael Dobbs novel starring Kevin Spacey was the streaming service’s first in-house production, and an enormous hit. Winning three Emmys, it suggested a future for the streaming service very different from that of Spotify, still two years from facing its first serious competition in the form of Apple Music. Where music streaming services competed to have the fullest libraries possible, Netflix leaned hard on having exclusive, acclaimed shows. As a business strategy, it paid off. For Netflix, and the other streaming services that followed, the upfront cost of an exclusive show is huge – but so is the incentive for new users to hop on board.
That is until the system breaks down. Andy Chatterley, chief executive of the piracy analytics firm Muso, thinks this began in the pandemic: “In 2020 there was this massive increase in piracy at the start of the pandemic, where everyone suddenly found themselves working from home. That’s unusual – we normally see big spikes up on things like 1 January, holidays, but the average is smooth.”
Chatterley’s data, gathered across a range of piracy sites, shows a prominent bump in the first few months of lockdown (driven, interestingly, by a huge increase in weekday piracy as the days of the week blurred into one). But the real change came in 2021, when studios and channels began to realise they couldn’t hold all their new releases for cinemas to reopen.
The tale is less one of demand than of supply. For movies, piracy had typically been kept at bay while the film was in cinemas, and viewers had to either pay, or settle for a fuzzy version recorded on a hidden camera. But the pandemic broke that pattern: films such as Black Widow, Godzilla vs King Kong and Wonder Woman 1984, released on streaming days after they hit the few cinemas left open, drove incredible traffic to piracy sites.
But if the pandemic and a fragmented market are driving people to piracy, it is having less of an impact on what they’re watching. Muso’s data shows that the most popular pirated shows in the UK in July included a few that are available on free-to-air TV, such as Rick and Morty and Love Island. Yes, Disney+ exclusives such as Loki and Star Wars: The Bad Batch are in the Top 10, as is the CW hit Superman & Lois, which is still yet to be legally available in the UK. But the data suggests people are choosing to pirate first, and what to watch second. That’s not surprising, Chatterley says, given the ease of modern piracy. “When people actually apply piracy, they’re completely satisfied in their viewing experience. They’re using a streaming platform with extremely sophisticated user experience.”
And after just a few years of streaming, we now have streaming fatigue: too many different services and not enough time. The problem is particularly acute in the US, where many big broadcasters have brought out their own streaming services – HBO Max, Paramount+ and NBC’s Peacock – each with monthly fees to pay. Analysts are predicting a wave of failures and consolidation over the next few years, likely to drive even more piracy.
Until then, over at Fact, Sharp will continue to fight against a seemingly unending tide. Where the industry has had some success in the courts shutting down large piracy sites, the breadth of the problem film and TV are facing can been seen in another corner of the streaming world: sport. According to an Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey, more than a third of those who watch live sports online do so illegally. The time pressure for finding and stopping such streams when a match is on is intense. “You’d send takedown notices to people whose services were offering the live sport, and the live sport was over by the time they were down,” Sharp says. “So things have got to improve there.”
When there are things to pay for, there will always be people looking for ways to get them for nothing. The question now is whether, having come so close to being pushed underground, piracy could rear its head not as the only option for thieves but as the simpler alternative for everyone. The Guardian