Blog Post

The ‘Lost’ Paradox: Why Some Free Shows On The Web Are So Heavily Pirated

Earlier this week, the popular BitTorrent news blog TorrentFreak published a list of the most pirated TV shows of 2010. The No. 1 most-pirated show-that would be ABC’s Lost, which was illegally downloaded nearly six million times-had a strange characteristic about it. It was available, for at least several months of 2010, for free via Hulu. Not just the last five episodes, but the whole darn series. So who is breaking the law to download stuff that’s available for free, and why?

Lost isn’t the only show that was both widely available for free on Hulu last year and yet was also heavily pirated. Other examples include Heroes (5.5 million downloads), House (2.6 million downloads), Glee (1.7 million downloads) and Family Guy (1.6 million downloads), all of which had recent episodes available for free, although not multiple seasons as in the case of Lost. (Heroes is now only available on Hulu Plus.)

Hulu doesn’t release viewership numbers on a per-show basis, but does say it has more than 30 million unique viewers per month. So why are a significant minority of users still grabbing content illegally that’s available for free?

The available data suggests a few possible explanations:

1. The majority of that illicit traffic of TV shows is from outside the U.S. At the same time, the proportion of TV content that is being pirated by U.S. internet users has gotten smaller over the last couple years. That suggests that Hulu is doing a pretty good job of limiting piracy in the U.S., and that it might be able to do the job worldwide if it got the legal rights to show content internationally.

The editor of TorrentFreak, who goes by the pseudonym Ernesto Van Der Sar, has been making widely read lists of the most-pirated content since 2007. “At the moment, the percentage of U.S. downloaders for major TV shows lies between 10 and 20 percent,” Van Der Sar said in an email interview with paidContent. “This used to be at 20 to 40 percent before legal options such as Hulu became available.” Looking at particular episodes of Lost, Van Der Sar has found that the percentage of pirates coming from U.S. IP addresses has dropped by about half since Hulu launched.

A just-released white paper by UC Berkeley Professor of New Media Abigail De Kosnik called “Piracy is the Future of Television” takes a closer look at why the features of piracy are so attractive to television watchers, and backs up Ernesto’s conclusion. “It is well-known that English-speaking countries outside the U.S. are host to a significant number of TV pirates, who, annoyed by the delay of U.S. programs’ export… download U.S. shows immediately after their broadcasts,” writes De Kosnik.

But international piracy doesn’t tell the full story. Clearly, hundreds of thousands of U.S. viewers, if not more, grabbed a BitTorrent copy of one or more episodes of Lost even when they could have watched it free on Hulu. So what’s another explanation?

2. Hard-core fans want an archive that’s easily accessible, high resolution, and they know won’t disappear-features that right now, only piracy offers. iTunes files can only be stores on one machine, and from the vantage point of a true fan (who wants a library of full seasons) DVRs fill up quickly. Sure, DVDs are an option-but they’re getting less convenient every year in the face of digital options, and clearly won’t be compatible with the devices of the next generation, like smartphones and tablets. The fans of today-the kind of fans who would want to collect a whole season’s worth of episodes-feel entitled to a TV archive that’s “high resolution, easily stored, [and] portable,” writes De Kosnik. Can entertainment companies honestly say the legal options available today meet those criteria?

While Hulu is a great service for millions, it definitely doesn’t meet the “portable” criteria. Some U.S. piracy is surely taking place just because viewers want to get a BitTorrent file that can be easily moved to a real television, and resist being forced to catch up sitting at their computer desk, notes Van Der Sar.

3. Television content still seems ephemeral and unreliable-sometimes the best way to keep it is to make your own recording. Take an old hit like MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head, for example. The show is still a cult classic in some circles, but copies that include the music videos-a vital component for true fans-aren’t legally available anywhere. That’s because the license MTV had to use those music videos back in the 1990s didn’t give them the right to include them on DVDs.

Read the full list of the top 10 most pirated TV shows of 2010 at TorrentFreak.

8 Responses to “The ‘Lost’ Paradox: Why Some Free Shows On The Web Are So Heavily Pirated”

  1. Johannes

    I think the main problem really is that most people are not able (or don’t know how) to connect their PC to their TV. I don’t know if it’s true for the US, but in Europe nearly every cheap DVD-Player can play divx files either stored in disc or on a usb-stick. So you download it via torrent, put it on a stick and watch it on your tv. Even if hulu would be available in Europe that wouldn’t be possible.

    That LOST is only available with a delay to international viewers isn’t completely true. You could get the 6th season one day after the US-airing-date on the german iTunes store. It was in english with german subtitles. So you could buy it on your iPhone, connect your iPhone with the component cable to your TV and watch LOST. Sure it was pretty expensive (2,49 Eur/Episode) but I think it’s a step in the right direction and I hope that more and more shows will be available like this in the future.

  2. Makes extreme sense. is not for available for viewers in most of the world and us Europeans like to get our weekly Lost fix when the show airs – not weeks or even months later when our local networks decide to put their dubbed versions on the air. Plus I can see the show in 720p, I think Pro7 still airs Lost in 576i.

  3. Also consider this: Hulu, is not really free the content might be available to people within us borders but the restrictions set upon such content and how one can use it are immense. I for one used to proxy my internet through a us proxy so that i could watch hulu from europe but they quickly patched that whole and now I can no longer watch any content on or location restricted videos.

    So off course I am going to pirate that stuff. Plus if you live abroad and don’t have access to the tv guide you rely on and other sites with build in calanders(or piratebay’s top 100 list) to find the new shoes that are hot that day. Much more convenient then browsing through IMDb or Hulu’s catalouge.

  4. The archive thing is a factor for US viewers, but a lot of it seems to be the creative side of tv fandom too. People make music videos they post on youtube, screen caps for web/print media etc, and use audio clips for podcasts and mashups… the easiest and quickest source of high quality material is still through torrents.

  5. The #1 reason I, and my friends, choose to pirate vs. use a legitimate streaming service is the ability to stream the episode directly to my TV. I can download a show in 10-15 minutes, kick back and watch it on my 52″ HDTV, pause it if I need to get a drink, etc. Why would I want to watch a lower-quality, commercial-laden version at my computer? Even if I hook my laptop up to the TV and stream Hulu that way, it’s still not as convenient (my laptop doesn’t have a remote control…) or as high-quality as a downloaded version. Additionally, TV shows are often available on bittorrent sites within an hour of airing, versus days later for streaming sites.

  6. I don’t think the “archive” hypothesis is very well-informed, at least when it comes to Bittorrent.

    It may hold true for only a very few programs, Lost being the most obvious example, Lost being an especially addictive, serial drama with a story arc that spans every episode of every season. “Binge viewing,” well outside the in-season window is pretty commonplace w/ this show, so there’s a strong argument for this series to be available legally in perpetuity, especially if it’s also regularly available on Bittorrent (which may not be a given considering its age – I can’t check myself right now) .

    Bittorrent downloads tend to take place within a very short window following the linear broadcast according to some of the data that’s available from third party sources. For serials, activity tends to peak the night of, and day after, the linear TV broadcast, and drops off very sharply during the next few days. The patterns can differ a bit depending on the type of program, but broadly speaking, they are consistent with the catch-up behavior you see on legal services.

    In fact, it’s often the case that, as a Bittorrent user, you’ll even have trouble finding tv shows that are much older than a couple of weeks.

    (Note:I’ve worked in this exact space since 2005…)

  7. contentnext

    It’s not just selection and not checking the valid sources. The quality of the torrent downloads is usually much better. You can find great quality high definition versions with surround sound audio in torrent form for pretty much any show you want. On Hulu only Hulu+ shows get HD quality video and audio stays in stereo. I suspect that’s by design, and it obviously only affects those viewers who care about such things. However, it’s probably also true that viewers willing to take the extra time and effort to pirate something are being motived by something along those lines.

  8. Joseph Tartakoff

    Another possible reason: When somebody gets used to using BitTorrent to get content they might not bother to check to see if it’s also available for free elsewhere. When I was traveling in Europe last week, the default among the people I was visiting was just to use BitTorrent to find shows and movies. Nobody talked about any other options. The selection is obviously great and it works.

    — Joe Tartakoff,