Piracy Is Back, Baby! Are Too Many Streaming Services To Blame?

Once upon a time streaming services lowered online piracy, so why is it back on the rise?


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Is an oversaturation of streaming services contributing to a resurgence of online piracy?

When streaming became mainstream in the early 2010s, the frequency of media piracy dipped around the world. But the latest research on illegal downloading and streaming shows that digital piracy is on the rise once again.

Why Is Piracy On The Rise?

Research recently conducted by Akamai found that piracy via streaming sites increased by 16 percent in 2021. For those counting at home, that’s 132 billion visits to pirate sites in the first nine months of 2021: 16 percent more visits than all of 2020, or 2021.

Music piracy — mainly from mobile devices — is also experiencing an uptick, according to statistics from DataProt. TV piracy, however remains the largest contributor to global piracy statistics. Downloading, uploading, and streaming pirated movies and TV takes up 24 percent of the global bandwidth. During the pandemic lockdowns that took place in 2020-2021, piracy of all media including software surged across the globe.

So, why is piracy making a comeback? Despite initially facilitating lower piracy rates, the over-availability of streaming services is a major contributor. The competition between streaming services to provide original content decreases accessibility for audiences as the content they wish to watch becomes fragmented across multiple services.

For example, the hit series Yellowstone is exclusively available on Stan in Australia. However, its spin-off — 1883 — can only be found on Paramount Plus.

Australia, A Land Of Notorious Pirates….

Streaming services like Netflix and Stan originally curtailed piracy rates in Australia by aggregating content from multiple networks so it was all available in one place. But as more and more studios and broadcast companies take their content off other services to create their own streaming services, media becomes more difficult and more expensive to access.

Streaming services in Australia are also among the most expensive in the world, especially when you factor in the price of data and VPN services. For many, subscribing to multiple platforms is simply unaffordable; even before Netflix’s price hikes and you know, the recent spike in the cost of living.

Not to mention, Australia’s history of media piracy is globally infamous. Apart from generally being home to some of the highest rates of media piracy in the world, Australia as a country held the record for illegally downloading more Game of Thrones episodes than any other country.

In fact, media piracy in Australia is so endemic that it’s made the country ground zero for landmark legal cases. In 2016, the Federal Court blocked the Hollywood studio behind the film Dallas Buyers Club from accessing the personal information of the millions of Australians who illegally downloaded the film. While fines were not issued as the company wanted, the whole debacle was a contributing factor in the federal government banning Australian IPs from accessing known piracy sites.

Is Piracy So Bad?

The good news is that researchers recently did a study finding that piracy is broadly tolerated by legal professionals. According to interviews with 50 Harvard lawyers, they found that digital piracy is not generally viewed as theft but as “fair” when availability is limited. A study in May also revealed that social media content and “buzz” created from pirated media actually boosts rates of legitimate viewing.

Many film directors have even encouraged fans to pirate their content. Werner Herzog has encouraged people to pirate his hard-to-find films. “Piracy has been the most successful form of distribution worldwide,” said Herzog. “If you don’t get [films] through Netflix or state-sponsored television in your country, then you go and access it as a pirate.”

More recently Daniel Kwan, co-director of Everything Everywhere All At Once, tweeted he appreciates fans seeking out and watching his film any way they can. Kwan even asked fans what the quality of the cam-rips was, tweeting: “If people are going to watch it for free, at the very least don’t want it to be some shitty cam rip. Ugh.”

Official media corporations love tossing out numbers in the millions and billions when it comes to their so-called “lost revenue.” But that “lost revenue” isn’t so much lost as it is the difference between projected and actual earnings. Given that entertainment revenue is higher than ever, it’s clear the actual impact of piracy on the industry as well as views on piracy within the industry are nuanced. (Also worth noting is that it’s independent and smaller creators who are the most negatively impacted by the effects of piracy.)

Ultimately, the reason rates of piracy — particularly TV piracy — is once again surging, isn’t as much of a mystery once you factor a loss of aggregation, general inaccessibility, and a recession. Once upon a time, streaming services were the great affordable defence and deterrent against piracy, but a surplus appears to have lured audiences back to the pirate’s life.

Hopefully, streaming platforms for TV and film will eventually take a leaf out of Spotify’s books and embrace a one-stop-shop model once again. Then again, that brings its own challenges. But with new streaming services cropping up like intangible whack-a-moles, it seems unlikely.