Why video piracy won’t die.

“Pirates” by Pascal.

These days, piracy is king. Anyone with basic Internet skills, a broadband connection, and a low-end PC can watch every TV show and movie ever produced. Hours after a new episode premieres, it’s uploaded to a dozen different services that allow instant playback. Even live sports streams aren’t hard to find.

Of course, content producers try to shut down these streaming sites. They lobby the feds to seize pirates’ domain names. They petition Google to remove links to the unsanctioned content.

But piracy prevention often seems like Whack-A-Mole. Shut down one site, and it resurrects itself the next day under new branding. Similarly, you can excise the Google links, but Google isn’t the only way to browse the web. Finally, the more “traditional” piracy options—Usenet and torrents, for example—continue to thrive. Video piracy just won’t die.

In some ways, today’s Internet TV mess resembles the music landscape, circa 2000. Back then, Napster and Kazaa made it simple to download entire music catalogs. And once music fans grew accustomed to downloading MP3s, they refused to return to the studios’ lucrative $18-per-CD business model. Napster had opened Pandora’s box, and the damage couldn’t be undone.

Eventually, the piracy problem forced the music studios to cut distribution deals with Apple. They made every album and every track available for purchase, legitimately, through a single vendor. Sales soared. iTunes’ success proved that customers would pay for reasonably-priced, conveniently-available digital content. Eventually, new business models—including paid streaming services like Spotify—began to surface.

Is the music industry as profitable as it was twenty years ago? No. But it’s far better off than it would have been, had the studios stubbornly refused to adapt.

Video content-makers must adapt, as well. Customers want a legitimate alternative to illegal streaming, and the studios haven’t provided one. The average viewer hates the recent trend of requiring a cable contract to stream shows online. And nobody likes hunting for a particular show across a dozen different online services (e.g. Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, etc.), each with a different catalog.

Why can’t TV and movie studios give their customers what they want? One easy-to-use, on-demand service for all the content ever produced. Every movie ever filmed. Every TV show, from the smash hit to the obscure cult favorite. And every game from every sport, broadcast live.

Customers would gladly pay for such a service. If one company offered viewers all the content, instantly and reliably, viewers would abandon their illegal streams and fork over a fat monthly subscription.[1]

Of course, this is naive. Content deals are notoriously difficult, and no one service can negotiate with every studio. But until paying for content is at least as easy as stealing it, video piracy will live on.

  1. After all, very few consumers want to pirate. It’s dangerous, for one thing; if the studios catch you torrenting, you may face a hefty lawsuit. And streaming is unpleasant, since it forces you to wade through malware-infested, ad-plastered scam sites.  ↩