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Casual Streaming Piracy and the Cost of Chasing it

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At Streaming Media NYC, held in Manhattan the week of May 20, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel around stream security. It’s probably the fifth or sixth time that I’ve done so in the last decade, but an interesting dichotomy popped up during the prep meeting with panelists, and again while we were on stage during the live session.

The concept was “casual piracy” and how it differed from “professional piracy” in both intent and scale.

I’m not going to recap the whole panel, but I do want to add some additional thoughts to what we discussed on the panel.

  1. Casual piracy is an issue, but a rather small one. I could perhaps subtitle this point by stating: Password sharing isn’t (or probably shouldn’t be) the primary focus for content platforms. Lots of news cycles have been devoted to how the crackdown on password sharing wasn’t a thing until it became a thing. It wasn’t a thing because it allowed the industry to grow to a level of viewership that challenged, then ultimately undermined traditional linear cable content delivery paradigms.

When the crackdowns occurred, in rapid succession across various well-known OTT platforms, it also proved that the vast majority of consumers would pay for the service if they had to (and by “had to” I mean that, when the OTT providers changed the rules of the game, the consumer did the honorable thing in order to continue to consume the OTT platform’s product).

That the crackdowns will sustain growth for a period of time is a given, even in the face of price hikes (which also happened nearly in lockstep with the crackdowns), but it will also be interesting to see how subscriber growth rates fall off when particular series end. It may just be that those extended friends and family members that used a friend or family member’s password opted to keep their viewing of particular programs alive for the time being but have little intent to maintain an additional subscription fee over the next year or so.

  1. Professional piracy is a well-paying business. On the panel we had representation from four parts of Europe, each with a unique perspective on the means and methods that professional pirates will go to in order to make crime pay.

One example we discussed, from around the time of last year’s World Cup, was the fact that pirates have become sophisticated—and brazen—enough to consider leaching streams and then attacking the primary broadcast streams in hopes of pushing more viewers to the pirates’ offerings of the same streams. One form of attack is through the use of distributed denial of service (DDoS), wherein pirates hit legitimate servers with thousands or hundreds of thousands of fake requests for content, rendering the attacked server incapable of serving up both legitimate and fake requests for content.

Another anecdote concerned scenarios in which multiple pirate entities band together to pare out watermarking methodologies that involve sending sporadic watermarks. A half-dozen pirate entities might look at an equal number of on-demand content streams, determine which parts are watermarked (assuming that the watermark occurs at different times for different streams), and then stitch together a non-watermarked version.

The point of both of these anecdotes is that neither involves a group of neighbors, family members, or even script kiddies, getting together to beat the system. This is innovation in piracy on a scale that works only if the pirated streams are profitable for the pirates to counter-host alongside the legitimate streams.

I’ll have more thoughts on this topic in a future column, but for now I encourage you to go watch the panel video and contemplate if we as an industry as spending too much time chasing casual piracy at the expense of truly engaging with the leaching and financial loss that come from professional piracy.

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