Piracy is on the rise thanks in large part to streaming services - The UpStream

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Piracy is on the rise thanks in large part to streaming services

posted Monday May 9, 2022 by Scott Ertz

In the early days of streaming media services, the amount of pirated media dropped significantly. The relatively low cost of Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and Xbox Music was low enough to make the process of piracy more trouble than it was worth. You had a single music streaming service (for most it was Spotify or Hulu), and possibly both streaming video services. All in, you might be paying $30 per month and you had everything you could ever want. But, as the streaming landscape has fragmented, piracy is on the rise and no one except the streaming services is surprised.

Back when streaming was easy

Some of our younger readers may not know that Netflix used to send you DVDs in the mail. But, when Netflix launched its streaming service, nearly every content provider wanted to talk with them about making content available. Sure, it wasn't always the latest and greatest, but that's because broadcast rights were already in place with Turner, HBO, etc. But, media owners took a strong notice of Netflix as more and more people signed up for the service. In fact, seemingly everyone was subscribed - the fairly low cost versus ease of content acquisition made it an easy decision.

Then came Hulu. The streaming service was started as a joint venture between ABC, Fox, and NBC. Hulu separated itself from Netflix by focusing on TV shows, while Netflix focused on movies. You could choose between the services if you wanted or you could sign up for both and get the best of both worlds. In fact, it drove many people to drop their cable subscriptions because Netflix and Hulu together were far less expensive than a standard cable subscription.

When streaming became challenging

The success of Netflix and Hulu, however, drove copycats. Today, it seems like everyone has their own streaming service. Before the merger with Discovery, WarnerMedia had several paid services just for itself. But, with competition comes challenges. Netflix and Hulu, plus HBO Max, Paramount+, Disney+, Peacock, and Prime Video make for a lot of costs. But, you can't just choose one because shows and movies are scattered across the services like paint. If you're a fan of The Office, you need Peacock. But, if you want to see Jim in A Quiet Place, you'll need to add Paramount+.

Services have fostered this idea, too. Each service has exclusively licensed content, plus they all make original content in hopes of attracting new customers. But, the end result is subscription fatigue, with users simply deciding toforego some or all of the services. But, you still want to see the next season of Stranger Things, so what is a streamer to do?

The re-emergence of piracy

According to the Sandvine Global Internet Phenomena Report for January 2022, BitTorrent is one of the top 7 platforms to see increases in power users for fixed network data, and the 9th biggest user for overall traffic. It also ranks #1 for upstream traffic - beating out even HTTP (meaning all web traffic).

This is a change from just a few years ago, when BitTorrent had stalled out and even shrunk in network usage. The increase has a lot to do with the fragmentation of media resources and the availability, and therefore cost, of streaming content legally. For many items, depending on how they are shared and their availability on the network, you can actually stream movies through BitTorrent nearly as easily as you do on Netflix.

In total traffic, Netflix is significantly higher for overall traffic. However, on mobile, BitTorrent is #5 and Netflix doesn't make an appearance in the top 15. That's an important note, as more traffic is moving towards mobile devices. In fact, we've seen a decrease in personal computer ownership. This shows a large percentage of the growing mobile category is going to wards BitTorrent.

It's important to note that BitTorrent traffic is not always illicit. Movies, TV shows, web content, and even software updates are handled through the BitTorrent protocol. However, this increase is unlikely to be caused by software updates so much as media usage.

What is the solution?

Swapping to piracy is not a good solution to the problem, though we understand the move. Illegal activity is never a solution to a problem. However, the industry does seem to be the cause of the issue. There is no good way to address the issue, as every media company wants to have its own service. As subscription growth slows, or companies end up with subscriber loss, they will need to address the issue themselves. Either lowering costs or merging offerings (as Warner Bros. Discovery is planning to do with HBO Max, Discovery+, CNN+, and more), may be the only way to ease the tides. Only time will tell if they recognize and respond to the problem correctly.


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