Pat Pilcher: Piracy on the rise, says NBC study

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

A study commissioned by US TV network NBC Universal, found that piracy is on the rise. This news mightn't exactly be rocket science, but get this - the study estimates that in January 432 million people accessed copyright infringing material and in the process of doing so consumed a rather substantial 9,567 petabytes of data. The report attributes nearly a quarter of all Internet traffic to piracy.

There's no shortage of studies bemoaning the rise of piracy, and it seems that each report manages to come up with even more truly sensational and headline grabbing numbers than its predecessor. Quite often however what isn't discussed is just how these numbers were obtained or the fact that these numbers are more often than not carefully crafted estimates.

Regardless of the methodologies used, or even the politics of such reports, their conclusions are often similar. The NBC report concluded by stating that even though there's been several shedloads of anti-piracy policies formulated and put into action, piracy is hard to stop. How's that for surprising news?

What the report doesn't however discuss is just how big an opportunity the piracy problem actually presents. Clearly the issue isn't small - 432 million people is a sizeable number no matter how you look at it, and equally massive is the 9,567 petabytes of data shunted around the net. Putting this into perspective 1 petabyte equals one quadrillion bytes (that's one thousand million million bytes of data) and search engine giant Google processed about 24 petabytes of data per day in 2009 (this still works out at a mere 720 petabytes per month). Even the BBC's hugely popular streaming service, iPlayer is said to use 7 petabytes of data per month, which is tiny compared the amount of pirated data flying around online on a monthly basis if the NBC study is correct.

But what if the piracy problem could be transformed from a problem into a revenue generating opportunity? The rationale is compelling. For a start, Hollywood and the music industry have a sizeable PR crisis on their hands. Dragging people into courts isn't a good look for anyone needing to maintain a good relationship with their customers and further complicating things is the emerging generation of customers that have grown up seeing piracy as the norm. Not good if you're a studio executive.

So what is driving piracy? Traditional arguments have piracy revolving around getting something for nothing, however there are other issues. People are tired of waiting months to get content that's already aired ages ago elsewhere. Local video on demand services are also unfortunately pretty lacklustre. While both Quickflix and Ezyflix attempt to fill a niche already occupied by piracy, each has their fair share of pros and cons.

Testing out both services, I quickly came to the conclusion that while Quicklflix's pricing isn't too bad, their content selection isn't as compelling as what can be pirated, and although Ezyflix's content seems more up to date, it is pricey (especially when compared to pirated stuff) and the service felt also clunky in use compared to pirating content.

Additionally, watching TV on a PC or tablet doesn't come close to the social nature of in-lounge big screen media consumption. Sadly the number of off-the shelf big screen compatible media players supporting Quickflix and Ezyflix service is comparatively limited (you could of course build a media PC and plug it into a TV, but for many this is too costly and/or too complex an undertaking).

Even though the quality of the video I downloaded or streamed from both services was on the whole pretty hard to fault, neither service is likely to replace my TV viewing habits until prices fall and a set-top device is available that easy enough to use that an entire family can use it without first enrolling at university for an advanced diploma in advanced rocketry.

Quickflix wins points here in that they are integrated into selected Sony smart TVs. This said, Samsung's recent acquisition of Boxee could soon see the Boxee interface appearing on Samsung tellies, meaning streamed content such as Ezyflix should also be watchable on a Samsung telly at some point in the future. Here's hoping.

Even still, superficially, both services compare poorly to piracy, and it isn't until you weigh up the fine print that their attractiveness becomes apparent. Heading to a torrent tracker site, such as the PirateBay, you can easily find almost any content you'd care to name using its search engine (that is of course providing you can stomach its increasingly distasteful and intrusive advertising). Navigating content on both services isn't terribly difficult either, but there are substantial gaps in the content of both services.

The cost (free provided you don't get busted and hit with huge fines) is also pretty hard to argue with. This said, Quickflix's monthly fee for all you can eat is also pretty reasonable for heavy users casual users however won't see a lot of value in paying for something they use irregularly. Ezyflix's pay per movie or season of TV show will be a tad more costly for the heavy user, but is likely to satisfy casual users.

Another bugbear of media consumers is DRM (digital rights management). Initially set up to halt file sharing and copying, DRM is at best an annoyance and is usually defeated by those in the know. DRM has also seen studios treating their customers like criminals, greatly inconveniencing them. DRM protected files cannot be transferred between devices (which is this tablet, smartphone and PC owning age is just silly) and usually requires a specialised player (most of which are just awful to use).

Pirated content usually doesn't require you navigate any DRM before you can watch content (a lot of pirated content will play back fine on a games console or PC using freely available software such as VLC). One key downside is that its quality can vary widely though, especially for newer content that has yet to be released on DVD or Blu-Ray. Quality was not an issue with both services, video looked great, as it should if you've plunked down a handful of cash for it.

Unfortunately, as long as the legal alternatives lag behind what is available via piracy, the sad fact of the matter is that video on demand will continue to play second fiddle. Thankfully there are alternatives to piracy in the form of proxy servers that'll bypass geo-locked content for services such as Netflix, Hulu and the BBC's iPlayer. Slingshot has already implemented a global mode free of charge for its subscribers that gives access geo-locked content in the US and the UK.

An even simpler answer could involve content creators working with the networks to embed adverts along the bottom of their content (in a similar fashion to the news tickers used by CNN and other news services) and then uploading the content to torrent tracker sites, creating legit torrent files.

The pros of such an approach potentially outweigh the cons by a significant margin. Torrent traffic is already fairly accurately monitored so that content creators can find out which shows were downloaded by how many people and this in turn means that a whole new stream of advertising revenues is waiting to be tapped into. Content could remain free, subsidised by advertising.

Peer to peer technologies also perform better as they scale upwards, and don't require massive data centre investments. I'd wager that most advertisers would also salivate at being able to hawk their wares to an audience of 432 million people.

I am of course grossly oversimplifying and by now there is a high probability that numerous TV execs and their legal counsels already having read this sputtering "but you can't do that!". Perhaps they need to ask themselves this simple question: What are the consequences of doing nothing?

Downloading a TV show or movie denies studios of revenues (be they DVD, Blu-ray sales or ratings and advertising). Studios are not here to be our friends, they're businesses and exist first and foremost to make a buck. Based on this, it is fair to say that if the current trend continues and the scale shown by the NBC study continues to grow, many studios will simply find it easier to walk away rather than continuing to haemorrhage ratings and revenues to piracy. Taken to its logical extreme, this could see a huge reduction in the availability of content, with reality TV rubbish such as desertislandtheblocksurvivor dominating our screens. I cringe at the thought

Sadly the status quo looks set to continue as content creators and their lawyers are too nervous to explore online alternatives that they have little control over while networks seeks to protect their investment in broadcast infrastructure. This is both sad and crazy given a population that is larger than most countries is already engaging in piracy.

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