In Depth

As Piracy Climbs, TV Takes Up Arms

Web Technology Is Part of Both Problem and Solution

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.”