File sharing is exploding, and the studios are barely keeping up fighting the pirates: That’s the gist of a WSJ story detailing NBC’s anti-piracy work. But is it really that simple?

pirate pumpkin
photo: Steenbergs

NBC’s Los Angeles-based anti-piracy unit sent out 3.9 million takedown notices for pirated content last year, according to a Wall Street Journal report from Monday. Three years earlier, NBC sent out just 427,000 such notices.

Piracy is exploding, and NBC is barely keeping up fighting back: That’s the message of the story, which details the work of the studio’s anti-piracy unit at length. Here’s the thing about that notion: It runs counter to some of the common narrative we’ve seen with regards to piracy in recent years. Piracy was supposed to be on the decline, we’ve heard time and again, with Netflix and others offering legal alternatives that are simply more convenient.

And there’s been numbers to back this notion up: In 2010, 19.2 percent of all residential U.S. Internet traffic during peak times was caused by P2P file sharing, according to traffic management company Sandvine. In the second half of 2012, that number was down to 12 percent. Netflix traffic, on the other hand, exploded during the same time.

So what’s going on here? Is piracy getting worse, is Netflix winning or is it all just business as usual? The answer probably depends on who you ask, but here are a few points worth considering:

  • BitTorrent is still growing, just more slowly. Or in the words of Sandvine: “In absolute traffic level, BitTorrent has risen in volume by over 40%, but the application continues to exhibit a steady downward trend in overall traffic share.” That means people are still downloading growing amount of movies and TV shows via BitTorrent, but Netflix and others are just growing faster.
  • BitTorrent’s not the only game in town anymore. Pirates have been using one-click file hosters and streaming sites hosted in countries with more legal flexibility for some time now, and streaming sites, especially, are starting to play an increasing role for TV show piracy.
  • The world isn’t flat. Sandvine’s numbers in particular have shown a significant slowdown of file sharing in the U.S., but abroad, things look very different. The existence of release windows has in many countries led to a whole generation of TV viewers who watch U.S. movies and TV shows online, something that was echoed by the WSJ piece:

“Rick Cotton, general counsel of NBCUniversal, who oversees the company’s antipiracy unit, said piracy is a particularly big problem overseas. For example, he said that revenue for its Spanish home-entertainment unit declined 62% between 2009 and 2011, mainly because of piracy, and NBC shut it down.”

  • Takedowns don’t equal downloads. That’s an important point that was somehow lost in the Wall Street Journal’s story. The number of takedown notices sent out by NBC isn’t exactly the best indicator for actual piracy levels. Sure, one could argue that the growing supply of pirated sources also indicates a growing level of demand for pirated content. However, the fleeting nature of piracy makes it hard to actually quantify any of this, in part because P2P file sharing works without hosted copies of content. It doesn’t really matter whether ten or a thousand sites link to the same torrent, shared by the same number of people — except if you want to send takedowns to all of these sites.
  • Curious timing, anyone? The WSJ story remarked that studios hardly ever talk about their own anti-piracy efforts, but went on to say that “NBCUniversal gave the Wall Street Journal a rare peek inside the cat-and-mouse game its security team plays with suspected pirates.” Of course, one should note that NBC’s corporate parent Comcast just implemented a six strikes copyright enforcement scheme on its own broadband service last week. In light of that step, the story reads a bit like a plea for sympathy: Look, we had to step up our game because takedowns alone weren’t working!

So what’s the takeaway from this? For one, piracy is obviously alive and well, and it’s still a huge headache for studios like NBC. But Sandvine’s numbers also show that piracy’s growth can be contained, especially in markets with compelling legal alternatives. However, expanding these efforts is hard work that takes time, money and the will to change up some of Hollywood’s rules. Expect many more stories about piracy whack-a-mole in the meantime.

Image courtesy of Flicker user Steenbergs.

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. If it were me, I’d figure out how to corrupt the pirated source with landmines.

  2. SteveFeather Monday, March 4, 2013

    Very interesting article considering alot of what I have been reading recently has been declaring piracy to be on the decline. If in fact, growth is still occurring, just at a smaller rate, then it is even more important for piracy enforcement to be implemented (like the six-strikes policies). Craking down now, when growth is slower, should be prioritized to perhaps put the “final nail in the coffin” on piracy.

  3. I’m glad the author is pointing out what is pretty clear to people who browse the internet everyday, piracy is still widespread and is evolving every year. Not even taking into account the huge piracy issues overseas, each of these takedown requests represents lost revenue for both views and time spend tracking and reporting this illegal behavior. NBC will and should continue to do this because legal viewing of their content is vital for their business. But the better long term solution is to create a system where NBC isn’t playing a carnival game just to receive the proper copyright benefits for the content they invest so much in.

    1. You’re ignoring a more basic question. Why does NBC give a fuck? Isn’t their programming coursing through our bodies as we speak?

      In the air, on the internet, It’s the same god damn thing!

      I swear the geriatric people who run these networks are fucking brain dead.

      1. While I agree with the sentiment, networks need to make money off commercials and to quantify viewership to charge more for the commercials. Now why they don’t provide less shitty and limited streaming capability legally, I dont know.

  4. This article presented an interesting trend that I wasn’t aware of– Netflix becoming more popular than torrent downloading, which means we are headed in the right direction. It is interesting to see NBC’s tactics for dealing with online piracy and streaming sites, and how the recent six-strike copyright enforcement scheme might play out for them in the long run. The networks lose money every time one of their shows is streamed or downloaded illegally. We need to find a way to make it more difficult for people to get to illegally downloading sites and actually penalize the websites behind this piracy.

  5. Janko Roettgers Monday, March 4, 2013

    Kelseliz, AlexB and SteveFeather, I’m glad you all enjoyed my story. However, I’m not too surprised you all share the same point of view. After all, the three of you commented from the same Washington D.C.-based IP address, and one of the email addresses you left points to a D.C. lobbying firm that gets paid by major labels, rights holder groups and movie studios… but I’m sure that’s all just one big coincidence.

    1. I have some discomfort with disclosing the identities of commenters, even in the oblique way it’s done here. That’s not really part of the bargain.

      1. William Neilson Jr. Larry Tuesday, March 5, 2013

        Translation: I got caught. Stop following me now.

      2. These three “commenters” (and perhaps you, as well) are probably the same individual using invented personas to make it seem as if genuine or “real” people actually believe the expressed sentiments.


        No “identity” was revealed here other than what was willingly provided (check the site’s ToS). If this goon was not a total schmuck, they could’ve simply refrained from providing the damning email address (which, as you’ll note, was not publicly revealed). Then the only thing that would be obvious is the sockpuppeting, as opposed to that in conjunction with lobbyist sponsorship. Since they were already being deceptive they could’ve even commented from different IPs to mask the puppetry, but again, this individual is clearly an inept vassal of a flailing Orwellian IP-monger.

      3. zoltarthesemimagnificent Larry Tuesday, March 5, 2013

        “Do not try and bend the bargain. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: there is no bargain.”

      4. zoltarthesemimagnificent Larry Tuesday, March 5, 2013

        “No not try and bend the bargain. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: There is no bargain.”

      5. An astroturfer has no realistic expectation of privacy. Nor does one deserve any.

      6. Yup tons of internet shills out there, funny to see them get busted / called out.

    2. that anonymous coward Janko Roettgers Tuesday, March 5, 2013

      One wonders if its the same firm that handles PR for CCI.
      If it is could you get them to release the review of the review they promised?
      Or maybe explain away how Dtecnet’s recent absolute failures in “stopping piracy” are supposed to make us feel better about the 6 Strikes program…

  6. janko (aka dick tracy),

    nice work!

  7. “whack-a-mole” is exactly how entertainment industry has been dealing with piracy…after all these years, no one learned a damn thing from Steve Jobs and what he done to help music industry survive. So few appreciates how he help general consumers “consume” and pay for digital content.

    One can argue music are short clips compare to TV shows and movies, but to the internet it’s all the same. To argue one format is more valuable than another is pointless for digital content. I think most execs that earns big paychecks and lawmakers do not understand this point. You may have unique and valuable content that people want and as long as you hide it behind a wall garden, piracy will come knocking. DRM in books has been pointless so far. Regional locks in DVD/Blu-ray are also useless. Ultraviolet…dont get me started…a good concept but poorly executed…if I have to read a manual and create more accounts just to access the movie I purchased on disc…you see where I’m going with this right??? If Amazon and Nook apps work like this, they would have mass protest on ebooks and see sales tank.

    I understand the need to protect your own content but that VERY act and how you go about it is precisely what is backfiring everyday. Think of online piracy as protests from the people you try so hard to sell to. You are not even on the same wavelength except for the desire to access that content.

  8. 1st I’ve heard that piracy is or was on the decline.

  9. Good point by Ben.
    It as if Apple and iTunes had never existed.

    They all want their own little shop and charge too much for
    content where they have already made their budget back
    on advertising (TV) and hopefully box office (features).


  10. why do you guys want to describe this as ‘sharing’ not stealing? call a spade a spade.

    1. I suppose that would be due to the fact that online piracy and stealing differ greatly. If I make a copy of the Mona Lisa but leave the original intact, am I stealing? After all, the original is in place and undamaged. If I then give away copies of my copy, am I profiting from my copy?

    2. Because “stealing” involve the loss of property.

      Your sentence contains a big error, and which is made only BECAUSE of the mistaken presumption that digital “objects” can be subject to the same economic laws as material objects.

      Digital “objects” are non material “objects” that do not get destroyed when consumed (as opposed to any material object).

      And certainly, copying something cannot be stealing because, as I said before, the original work is not getting lost, there is no property loss, so it cannot be stealing.

      1. @PopeyeLePoteaux
        You should be more precise. From the point of view of economics, a good can have (or not) two properties:
        – non rivalry, if its consumption by one person does not limit its consumption by other persons
        – non excludability, if it is possible to prevent someone from consuming it
        By construction, digital goods are non rival and non excludable. By the way, one of the roles of DRM is to attempt to make digital goods excludable and rival.

        Your seem to claim that only digital goods are non rival. This is not true. Many physicals goods are also non rival. For instance, a book is non-rival. Once read it is still available for others.
        Therefore, the notion of property or ownership is not related to rivalry, else you could not steal a book. Property is related to other economic concepts but mainly legislative notions.

        Sharing is commonly used in the domain, even in the anti piracy field. This has the advantage to be a neutral technical term. It is always good to use the common language.

Comments have been disabled for this post