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How Netflix, Disney+, and other streaming giants combat piracy

The heat is on to try and tackle the issue of piracy for Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video, which are about to crack down on illegal viewers.

Streaming video services like Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video have become key parts of our entertainment diet. They serve up endless hours of video and set the agenda with their blockbuster series – far more than the old appointment viewing of the TV of yore. But they’re very expensive, meaning that many viewers cherry-pick which services they subscribe to – with password sharing and outright piracy rife.

The idea of subscription fatigue describes your favorite programs and movies being split across so many streaming services that you have to subscribe to multiple at a great hit to your wallet. It is becoming even more of a troubling development given the recession striking many countries, and the parallel inflation that is pushing up prices worldwide.

It all means that people are reconsidering how they access their favorite content – and often falling into inappropriate practices. There are degrees of piracy, from the minor – such as sharing passwords for a streaming service across multiple households – to the major, including visiting outright pirate websites. But it’s important for organizations to take action: the US economy loses at least $29 billion to online TV and film piracy, according to one report.

Degrees of darkness

Streaming services and authorities have recognized the risks of all of these approaches. Taking the legal grey area of sharing passwords first, services like Netflix have started trialing bolt-ons to their packages that would allow users to add viewers to their subscriptions at a smaller cost. These methods are an attempt to head off the widespread use of password sharing across the service, with Netflix estimating 100 million households access their videos while not having a subscription themselves.

But they’re far from alone. Just this week, the UK’s Intellectual Property Office, a branch of government, said that sharing passwords was a breach of copyright law. The legal guidance was removed from the government’s website, but a spokesperson told reporters that password sharing was both a criminal and civil offense.

That means that either streaming service owners (such as Netflix) could pursue a case in the courts, or police services in the UK could too (as a criminal case). There’s no indication they would, however – not least because of the PR impact doing so would have on their services.

Outright piracy

One of the reasons that streamers might be wary of pursuing their customers through the courts or police forces is because it could push the grey area of password sharing – where they at least get revenue from one household, even if not all of them using a single password – into the black market entirely. Dissuading people from paying at all could spell disaster for streaming services.

Across Europe, 17 million people accessed pirate streaming websites in 2021, according to a new report by Bournemouth University. Nearly a third of those were aged sixteen to twenty-four. The UK and Ireland were amongst the countries with the highest percentage of their populations watching TV illegally – with 6.6% and 7.2%, respectively – though the Netherlands was the piracy capital of Europe.

“Illicit IPTV is a relatively recent phenomenon in the realm of digital piracy,” says Sheila Cassells, Executive Vice-President of the Audiovisual Anti-Piracy Alliance (AAPA). “Several factors contribute to its proliferation, including the low entry barriers for pirate services and the high rewards with limited risk of enforcement. Technical and legislative challenges make fighting this form of piracy difficult.” In all, piracy cost streaming services €3.2 billion in 2021, according to the report.

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