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As Piracy Climbs, TV Takes Up Arms

May 17, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Television executives are preparing to wage the same war music executives have been fighting for more than a decade—the battle against pirates.
That’s because piracy of TV shows is growing faster on the Web than is the illegal sharing of movies and music, according to Big Champagne, a media measurement firm that tracks piracy.
TV executives are lining up their legal, technological and marketing resources to fight piracy on a number of fronts. The TV business won one of its first battles in early April when the people behind file-sharing site the Pirate Bay were convicted of copyright violation and ordered to pay $3.6 million in damages to companies including Warner Bros., Columbia, 20th Century Fox, Sony BMG and EMI.
But TV piracy is rising faster than courts can rule and decisions can be appealed. There now are more than 60 million Internet users worldwide actively engaged in piracy, said Eric Garland, CEO of Big Champagne.
“We are constantly looking at new technologies and ways to address new threats, but our ability to do things legitimately through legitimate channels is also exponentially increasing,” said David Kaplan, senior VP and intellectual property counsel for worldwide antipiracy operations at Warner Bros.
Piracy breaks down into two categories, hard goods piracy and digital theft. Online piracy includes TV shows shared via peer-to-peer technology on torrent sites like Pirate Bay, streaming sites that show infringing content, and “cyber lockers,” or sites that link to pirated copies of TV shows online, Mr. Kaplan explained.
All of those forms of piracy are growing, but Warner Bros. and other studios have begun to implement strategies to combat the spread. That includes striking deals with sites interested in playing ball, just as YouTube and MySpace in the last few years have introduced fingerprinting technology that has reduced the number of illegally uploaded copies of TV shows on their sites. Other efforts include negotiating with the folks running the “cyber lockers” to have them link to legitimate viewing options for shows, such as Hulu or TheWB.com.
Legitimate online distribution can reduce piracy. Carnegie Mellon University recently published a research report that said NBC’s decision to leave iTunes two years ago (NBC has since returned) led to an 11.5% increase in piracy of NBC’s content compared with that of ABC, CBS and Fox content.
“On a unit basis, this increase was more than twice as large as the daily sales NBC received through iTunes before removal. Moreover, we see no increase in DVD sales for NBC’s television boxed sets after removal,” the report found.
Studios also work closely with Internet service providers, who don’t want their pipes used for stolen goods.
“In another six to 12 months, these pieces put in place will come to fruition,” Mr. Kaplan said.
Even so, piracy won’t be eliminated. Some people just prefer to pirate shows. There also are parts of the world where networks and studios don’t legitimately distribute content.
“There will always be piracy, and if they can’t pay for legitimate content, the fact that they were pirating doesn’t impact you,” Mr. Kaplan said.
Some critics say antipiracy efforts are an uphill battle, but networks believe the fight is necessary. The United States economy is increasingly based on intellectual property and creative goods, said Rick Cotton, executive VP and general counsel at NBC.
That’s why networks and studios are working with government and ISPs on new antipiracy laws, he said.
NBC has made strides online. As an example, the vast majority of views for last fall’s Tina Fey parodies of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin came from Hulu and NBC.com, sites where the network can make money via ads. During the Olympics last summer, NBC said only 1% of viewing of online Olympics material was generated by infringing content on user-generated sites because the network provided legitimate alternatives.
The next step for networks is to try to replicate the success they’ve had in reducing piracy on video-sharing sites with peer-to-peer sites. “Technology can and should play a central role in reducing digital theft,” Mr. Cotton said.
Piracy occurs mostly outside the U.S.’ borders. More than 90% of the people who download TV shows are located outside the United States, where new episodes are released well after they air domestically, said Ernesto Van Der Sar, editor-in-chief of TorrentFreak.com.
“The number of downloads from BitTorrent and other file-sharing networks continues to increase,” he said. “The rise of unauthorized downloading of TV shows is a signal that customers want something that is not available through other channels. It’s more about availability than the fact that it’s free and should be viewed as an opportunity, not a threat. The more restrictions, the more piracy.”

73 Comments

  1. So, let me get this straight.
    1. You can watch a show on TV.
    2. You can tape a show on TV.
    3. If you forget you can ask to view your neighbor’s tape of the same show on TV?
    4. But you clearly can’t get a copy of the show from a stranger?

  2. Van Der Sar understands — it’s about availability not some uber-cheapness. If a fan wants to see something, they’re going to find a way to see it. If it’s not offered in a legitimate way, they’re going to seek out another way.
    Find a way to offer everything online and monetize it, and piracy will go down.
    Draconian efforts to stamp out viewers – i.e. fans – ability to watch content will never go down well and will be resisted. How could they not be? If we can read about something on the net, we want to see it.
    Also, sites offering TV content need to take off geo-blocks so that anyone can watch, from anywhere. Otherwise, to pirate sites we go.

  3. chuck, technically #3 on your list has always been a bit legally dubious, but current piracy could be best described as your taping a TV show and making a copy for anyone who wants one.
    In the VCR days if you gave a show to your neighbor to watch you could not watch it until you got the tape back; with Internet piracy you’ve cranked out copies for the world.
    Now for my money, Fox is making the correct move by releasing 24 on home video on May 19, the day after the season finale.
    Compare to AMC, which will make viewers wait almost a full year after season two of Mad Men aired to release it to home video.
    For the most extreme case of this, you’ve got Warner Brothers and their excessively slow release schedule of serials like Dallas and Knots Landing and MGM and their release this fall of the first season of thirtysomething.
    The real DVDs are of course appreciated, but far too many fans have purchased pirated DVDs or downloads because of how long it’s taken to get legal product out the door.
    For example, for Knots Landing, on the current release schedule, WB should have the entire series released in 30 years

  4. This is a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. I occasionally download TV shows, for a few reasons:
    1. To catch up on back episodes, when I’ve come into the middle of a series. “Leverage” is a good example. I was only interested in continuing to watch it, because I was able to go back and catch up from the beginning. I would be much less interested in watching if I were unable to do that.
    2. To watch shows I usually watch “live”, but missed. Maybe there was conflicting programing, or whatever – the reason’s irrelevant. The ability to catch that missing show means I’m more likely to watch it “live” next week. If the networks stop letting me catch mission episodes, I’m more likely to lose interest in continuing to watch the show.
    3. For time-shifting and display on a different device. I can watch full-motion video on my Palm phone. But getting the show transferred from my DVR to the phone is a time consuming multi-step hassle. I can download an AVI file while I’m sleeping, and then convert/upload to my phone in a single step.
    If the networks would provide the shows in AVI files, I’d download from them. I wouldn’t have to worry about spending hours to get a bogus file. They could include commercials and promotions. As long as they’re no more intrusive than during broadcast TV, I wouldn’t really care.

  5. When my son was serving in Iraq, one of the things he and his fellow soldier appreciated most, was DVDs of recent episodes of US TV shows.
    If that’s “digital piracy”, it’s fine with me.
    We have been taping episodes of shows for people unable to watch them for years. Now it’s a problem?

  6. When my son was serving in Iraq, one of the things he and his fellow soldiers appreciated most, was DVDs of recent episodes of US TV shows.
    If that’s “digital piracy”, it’s fine with me.
    We have been taping episodes of shows for people unable to watch them for years. Now it’s a problem?

  7. I do not understand, if the purpose of this business is to distribute content, why anyone wouldn’t be happy that people are spreading and sharing the content.
    Sharing and spreading should be encouraged, as that would make the content more interesting and valuable.

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