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.