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NBC’s piracy takedowns skyrocket: Wait, wasn’t file sharing supposed to be dead?

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 (s GE) 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 (s NFLX) 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 (s CMCSK) 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.

39 Responses to “NBC’s piracy takedowns skyrocket: Wait, wasn’t file sharing supposed to be dead?”

  1. I agree that piracy needs to be stopped but NBC and Universal need to refine their methods of targeting pirates.

    I am a digital designer (MamaLlamaLisaDesigns) who used snowflakes to create a corner page overlay of frosted snowflakes for digital scrapbook pages. My use of the word “frosty overlay” tripped NBC/Universal’s web crawling program and shut down my file. Nothing in my file(s) is remotely infringing – I created the snowflakes and clustered them in a corner to create a frosty overlay such as you find on old windows in the winter. The word frosty is not copyrighted nor was it used as a noun – it was an adjective describing the overlay itself. The image bears no resemblance to any character or copyrighted image. I find it very disturbing that large corporations have the power to shut down others with out looking at the files.

  2. Why studios dont pull their heads out of their asses and provide more streaming with commercials, I dont know. Many of the people I know don’t pay for cable and many don’t really use a tv. Watching movies on computer screens without cable leaves those of us that say want to watch a cable channel tv show (which is where a lot of the better programming is these days) out to dry. If a streaming service offered instant viewing like some shows do, tv piracy would be lower. Right now lots of copyright holders prioritize stream watchers last. I want to see the new Walking Dead episode immediately not delayed. Im pretty sure the first half of the final season of Breaking Bad isnt available half a year later on Netflix. Then you have Netflix which was the only game in town at first. Then everyone jumped in; Amazon, Hulu and Google all competing for viewership and content exclusivity. Add in the studios which have stupid arbitrary rules as to when and what should be available and consumers get screwed. I have a Netflix account but most of the movies I want to stream aren’t available because the studio says so or because Amazon has it. What good is my monthly subscription then if lots of stuff isn’t available and I have to go purchase it from Amazon or not have access at all? Every time I can’t consume something is a missed monetary gain for content owners and yet they continue expecting us to bow to their wishes. If I can’t legally get a show without having to pay Comcast obscene amounts for cable then I’ll watch it elsewhere without commercials at my own leisure instead of a dictated time (within dozens of minutes of it airing live.) That’s without touching the shitty overpriced monopolistic ISP system we have.

  3. Surprising post.
    Using only P2P activity as a measure of content piracy is highly inaccurate. Piracy is an ecosystem that quickly evolves. During the last years, cyber lockers such as feu MegaUpload are driving a lot of users to illegal copyrighted content. There is no reliable (to the best of my knowledge) study of the share between the different channels. The best example I know is “The six business models for copyright infringement” but it is focusing on UK.
    Take down notices are also an insufficient indicator. It just show the activity of a given studio. By the way, you would be surprised by who are the most active. It is a public data published by Google
    Content piracy is an extremely complex technical topic (and do not even speak about the legal aspects of it)

  4. Jarmo Puskala

    “…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.”

    There’s also the small thing that the Spanish economy tanked. More than 50% of youth are unemployed – the same age group who are the heavy users of entertainment. Could this possibly have more to do with the loss of revenue than piracy?

    It’s like complaining grocery stores are suffering because people went on a diet, when the whole nation is starving from famine.

  5. Bbbbbbbbbbb

    How is downloading something available over the air illegal? Their broadcast licenses ultimately belong to the people. The cable broadcasters have a much better argument here.

  6. Kenneth Michaels

    The gem in the WSJ article is the last paragraph:

    >>In the end, though, Mr. Cotton acknowledges that the pirates won’t be disappearing soon. “What I lose sleep about is that we’re moving too slow,” he said. “How do we protect ourselves? Where are we in this transition? That is a vital question because our future is digital.”<<

    I think this paragraph shows the extent to which the Studios are out of touch with technology. Implicit in the question, "Where are we in this transition?" is a hope that the technology "transition" will soon be over. But the transition has just begun and is accelerating – and the Studios don't realize this? Also implicit in the question is the notion that the current technology "transition" has an end point (i.e., when the technology reaches an inherent limit). The VCR transition had a clear start and end. The DVD transition had a clear start and end. The current technology transition (the Internet), however, is unlike previous transitions. We now have continuous and incremental technological improvements that require continuous adaptations and innovations.

    Just as Google and Facebook have to continuously adapt, change, and innovate, so do the Studios. The Studios do not realize this and believe that the current transition has an end point (when they can sit back, fat and happy, until the next transition). 

    Implicit in the question, "How do we protect ourselves?" is a conflict with technology. The Studios should be embracing technology, not fighting it. Not only are the Studios "moving too slowly," they are moving in the wrong direction or hardly moving at all.

    Finally, if Cotton really means that "our future is digital," his observation is at least 15 years late. But my guess is that Cotton is misusing the term "digital" and actually means "our future is streaming" or "our future is delivery over the Internet." He is either 15 years late or getting his technology terms wrong – showing a fundamental misunderstanding of technology in either case.

    Note: I see the term "digital" being misused now and again, as in "the Beatles are now finally digital; you can buy their songs on iTunes." Well, the Beatles were digital, you can now buy their songs on the Internet and not just CD. 

  7. Gerald Mander

    I love that the major content providers are so desperate that they are trying to game even the comments section, so inept that they have no idea how to hire competent PR firms who have a clue how to cover thei tracks (shame you don’t know about VPNs, because brother, your audience is about to flock to them big-time), and even less ethical than a crackhouse pimp.

    All you really have to do to prove how evil they are is provide them a forum. They’ll handle the rest.

  8. Here’ what I know. I have received multiple copyright claims on my youtube channel for completely original content made entirely by me. This isn’t about preventing loss, it’s about improving gains. Take down notices do NOT equal piracy.

  9. Dreddsnik

    ” call a spade a spade.” Will do. It’s ‘Sharing’.
    When something is stolen, the other person no longer has it.
    When something is shared, both people have it.

    This is not semantics, this is fact. Calling it stealing is semantics, and dishonest.

  10. Ron Larson

    (1) How many of those take down notices were false? The industry is notorious for using sloppy robots to generate those. They regularly issue take downs for content that is not theirs, is fair use, or is even their own licensed content.

    (2) They complain that the problem is overseas. Yet they don’t allow overseas fans any legal and reasonable way to watch a show. This overseas piracy is a symptom of failure to supply a demand. Figure out a way to server that market and most of your problem will go away.

  11. A question unasked that I’m really curious to learn the answer to: how many of these takedown notices were legitimate?

    The story author correctly cites that notices != downloads (or even come close to being a fair representation), but given Hollywood’s penchant for overreach when it comes to copyright … why should we assume that all of those notices that Comcast (really, let’s call a spade a spade) reports having been made are legitimate?

  12. elisa jensen

    seems like a big problem for creators and creative businesses. I wonder what the long term effect on employment is or will be…ideas — like software and games and TV shows — are pretty much what we create in the U.S. Scary to think this jobs base could be eroded.

  13. Two years ago a UK company I was with released a download only LP by a reasonably successful YouTube musician (26million views, 150,000 subscribers). Within a week we had blocked 56 torrent sites, all of them in Russia, all pointing to two servers. In NBC’s world that would be 56 takedown notices rather than 2 sources.

    What was curious was how they got a copy of the LP – at the time it was only available on iTunes. So either they buy copies en masse of every new release, or hack copies.

    The other key point raised in the article is delayed global release-windows. It’s common among online users in Europe to find copies of anything they want to watch if it’s delayed more than a week from its US release date. Just as there are people in the US who have seen Dr. Who within an hour of it airing in the UK. Windows are dumb and alienate the very audience producers and studios should be cultivating – the ones who are such fans they won’t wait.

    • 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?

    • PopeyeLePoteaux

      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.

      • @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.

  14. 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).


  15. “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.

  16. 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.

    • 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.

    • that anonymous coward

      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…

  17. kelseliz

    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.

  18. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

  19. SteveFeather

    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.