Industry Voices—Hawley: Coronavirus and video piracy: A tale of two movies

"Bloodshot" has been a popular subject among people searching to illegally download movies. (Sony Pictures)
Steve Hawley Industry Voices

As the global coronavirus situation plays out and the public seeks to remain informed and entertained while house-bound, network demand has exploded worldwide. To their credit, video providers are responding in public-friendly ways. Comcast, Charter and other service providers are relaxing data caps, while Dish Network has settled several business disputes to restore local TV channels.

However, the movie industry relies heavily – albeit no longer exclusively – on the unrestricted flow of people to theaters, so it has fewer options and greater exposure to risk. The Hollywood Reporter cited analyst estimates that the outbreak could cost the movie industry $5 billion in lost box-office revenue.

Coronavirus impact on video piracy

Intuition says that not only will the pandemic drive consumers to pay TV, video on demand and broadcast television, but that it also will drive movie theft and infringing video use – and there’s strong evidence that it already has. This article looks at two situations. 

The first is for a popular movie that’s currently in theatrical release. The second is an old movie that’s available online and recently has had a boost in interest. The latter situation raises some questions whose answers may be uncomfortable for some and obvious for others.

Case 1: Bloodshot

First, let’s look at the action movie “Bloodshot,” which was released in theaters on Friday, March 13, but had been in strong demand well in advance of release.

Source: Google Trends (Search for ‘download bloodshot movie’ – Feb. 16 – Mar. 16, 2020)

Starting prior to its release date and extending through the first few days after release, searches by people looking for download sources have skyrocketed. In fact, searches began at least three weeks prior. The chart doesn’t necessarily mean that the movie was actually available for download back in February, but certainly the interest was there. 

Assuming that searches led to downloads, this is a clear case of profit from theft, and if the companies that produced and distributed “Bloodshot” have been using modern anti-piracy technology, they are probably well aware of when the movie was stolen and from where.

Source: Google Trends (Search for ‘download bloodshot movie’ – Feb. 16 – Mar. 16, 2020)

Looking at the list of countries that ranked highest for demand, they all are countries with low disposable income where premium video services and pay TV are considered luxuries, but everyone has a mobile phone for streaming.

Case 2: Contagion

With the coronavirus outbreak, there has been lots of interest in movies and TV shows about pandemics – both fictional and factual. At the beginning of March, the CEO of Muso, an antipiracy technology company, said that visits to piracy streaming sites to stream the movie “Contagion” had increased from 56 visits last July, to 546 visits on January 7, 2020; and to more than 30,000 visits on January 30 alone; up more than 5,600% from December through January.

As for legitimate distribution, “Contagion” is available for streaming from Comcast, Charter  and other pay TV outlets, and for streaming, rental or purchase from Amazon, Apple, Hulu and others. All these services are accessed using consumer user IDs and passwords, which of course are subject to sharing and abuse; a pretty high-profile topic in the premium video world right now.

If infringing use is detected, what next?

Using current technologies, video providers can associate content with infringing distributors and end-users, pinpoint their locations and discern details about the user’s device. This is the case both for movies caught in the wild on pirate streaming and download sites, and for situations of credential sharing and consumer account abuse.

RELATED: DoJ prosecutes video pirates; Synamedia portrays types of piracy

Given the leniency being shown by video and service providers as demand increases in this difficult time, what should they do when infringing use is detected?

Now, the uncomfortable questions:

  • If the activities of residents have been restricted – whether by choice or by government decree – should the video provider exhibit some leniency or should access limitations be enforced as usual?
  • If credential sharing or account abuse is detected, should infringing users be challenged or shut down? Or should they be allowed to continue watching?
  • In the spirit of goodwill, should video providers invite detected infringers to take legal services with relaxed incentives, such as extended free trial periods and special bundled offers?
  • As consumers suffer personal consequences from coronavirus, is rights-protection more important than consumer considerations?

What does it mean?

With the less-restricted flow of bits as broadband data caps are raised or temporarily suspended, what do you think? Every video provider will make its own decision about this situation as it relates to its own community of end users.

For the record, in acknowledgement of the losses suffered by video producers and creative professionals, there should be no change in position about pirates who steal content and advertising.  

In fact, the time is now or never for better piracy detection and better anti-piracy enforcement. Pirates should not be allowed to use today’s disruptions as an added opportunity.

Steve Hawley is managing director of Piracy Monitor, which provides news and insights about video and audiovisual content piracy, and its effects on video providers, creative professionals and on consumers. Subscribe to the E-Newsletter to receive news and updates. Piracy Monitor is active in four areas: Piracy awareness, Market intelligence, Industry marketing and Consulting.  Mr. Hawley is also a contributing analyst to Parks Associates and S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceVideo staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceVideo.

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