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Why are piracy sites visited 215 billion times a year?

Piracy sites were visited 215 billion times during 2022 according to a report from MUSO, a market analytics company. That’s an 18% increase from 2021, with most visits coming from the USA, India, Russia, China and the UK. What’s driving this trend? Why are piracy sites being visited so much and why is it increasing?

One of the reasons why piracy is so widespread is because the beneficiary is far removed from the creator. If you download a film illegally, there’s little visibility of the detrimental impact on the film studio such as job losses. Actions are also seen in their individual light rather than their contribution to the whole. It’s similar to voting. A lot of people don’t vote because they feel their individual vote won’t make a difference. Same with environmental protection. Why should I recycle my plastic bottle? It’s just a tiny bit of plastic. It won’t make a difference to the big picture. And so it goes with piracy; If I stream just one film, it won’t harm anyone, right?

The counter-argument, of course, is one that’s been stated a million times. What if everyone thought like you? When it comes to piracy, there’s often a perception that a music or film studio is making hundreds of millions in revenue, so an individual stream or download won’t hurt anyone. The reality is very different. Digital video piracy is costing the US economy between $29.2 and $71 billion each year and it’s estimated 70,000 jobs are lost in the US each year due to music piracy.

There also appears to be a growing trend of entitlement among internet users when it comes to pirated material. Oftentimes if the the price isn’t acceptable to the potential buyer, it’s the seller’s fault. The seller will suffer because the buyer has now determined it’s their right to download the item illegally.

Greg Doucette is a popular fitness content creator on YouTube. A while back he released a cookbook priced at $150; far beyond the budgets of many people. On the comments sections of his videos, some viewers asked for the price to be lowered. Others said they couldn’t afford it but would save up and buy it later. But a large chunk of people were angered by the price. They wanted the cookbook, and they felt as if they deserved a lower price. Some openly admitted to searching for illegal copies and others said they already had illegal copies and were willing to share it.

The incident reflected an ongoing shift in the balance of market power in the favour of the consumer. In the past if a seller has priced a high demand item expensively, people have been upset not to be able to afford it but they accepted it. But now people are perfectly comfortable in openly stating in a public forum that they are going to break the law. Downloading intellectual property without the financial transaction that permits its distribution is theft.

And it’s with digital products that we’re seeing this trend highlighted. When Apple sells headphones for $549, people don’t openly state their intention to steal. If Prada sells a $3,000 handbag, many people simply decide it’s a price they’re not willing to pay. Attitudes towards digital content appears to be different. Perhaps it’s because the internet offers such a vast source of free information and entertainment. Maybe parting with our cash is made much more difficult because we know there’s so much free content out there. One could Google hundreds of cookbook recipes. Why should I have to pay $150?

Upon reflection, many people have unwittingly experienced this phenomenon themselves. You may have decided to purchase, for example, a photo editing app for $5. Before purchasing, you may have hesitated for at least half an hour because there are so many free resources out there and you don’t want to waste your money. In hindsight there’s considerable hesitation in purchasing a digital product, and you may not even think twice when spending the same amount on a coffee. The market is about finding harmony between the seller and the buyer. If the price doesn’t suit the buyer, the product doesn’t get sold. At least that’s what it was traditionally. With digital products, if the price doesn’t suit the buyer, there’s the option to find and download an illegal copy.

Save file

A common argument in favour of piracy is that a person who pirates content wouldn’t have paid for it anyway, so companies don’t lose anything. That’s not entirely true. Assume a gamer is planning to buy a newly released video game. They have been waiting with excitement for the game to be released and it’s finally here. However on the day of release, they see a link to download the game illegally. The gamer proceeds to download the game and doesn’t complete their purchase as originally intended. This is a clear financial loss to the video game company. The game has been pirated and the company has lost out.

This is just one scenario of millions in which pirating content affects the revenue of producers. Let’s use Greg Doucette’s cookbook as another example. Chad is looking forward to the release of the Anabolic Cookbook. His taste buds are ready! The book is released and he has his credit card information to hand. He knows that digital content faces a piracy problem, but he wants to pay for the item and do things legally. Just before buying the cookbook, he goes onto Greg Doucette’s YouTube channel. He sees many comments from people saying they’ve already pirated the cookbook. Many are saying they’ve saved money and are benefiting from the recipes in the illegally downloaded book. Chad thinks to himself, “All these people have illegally downloaded the cookbook. They’ve got all the recipes I want and they haven’t spent a penny. Why should I pay when all these other people get it for free?” Chad then decides to visit a digital piracy website and downloads the cookbook for free. In this example, Greg Doucette faces a financial loss. Chad has pirated the book and was fully intending to pay for it, going against the argument that those who download illegally wouldn’t have paid for it anyway.

A contingent of people justify digital piracy because in some very rare cases it actually helps producers. Take, for example, a film that’s about to be released. If people download the film before the premiere, they won’t go to the movie theatre and the studio loses out. There is an argument that the word-of-mouth generated from those who’ve pirated the film can result in greater movie theatre attendance! If you pirate a film, you can take part in discussions with others who’ve also seen the film. Assuming it’s a good film, those discussions about how amazing it is will draw people in, who will then be encouraged to watch the film themselves (legally!).

Pirate flag on the beach

There is an opportunity for digital piracy users to self-deter. But behaviour change is complex, particularly when cognitive dissonance is at play. It’s estimated that more than half of people who engage in digital piracy think it is wrong to do so. Values and behavior don’t always match. Another perspective is that piracy is a positive thing because it is taking power away from big businesses that make huge profits. On YouTube, for example, many times when creators’ accounts are shut down or banned for infringing copyright, it’s seen as an attack against the ‘little man’ by the big bullying corporate giant.

The penalties for downloading or hosting pirated material can be heavy. Up to 5 years jail time and a $250,000 fine. This doesn’t appear to be a deterrent, given the hundreds of billions of visits piracy sites get every year. Some record labels have pursued individual cases, mainly during the 2000s. But a lot of these cases were settled out of court, which meant that labels didn’t always recover their financial losses. They also received some negative press as per the ‘corporate bully’ image. Although attitudes are changing, back then people couldn’t see the justification for a record label that makes millions suing an individual for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But perhaps things may change in the future. With social media platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Twitch being so popular, many more people appreciate the effort put into content creation and production. Ultimately piracy has the potential to harm those who engage in it; if not in the short term in the form of fines and the risk of being infected with malware, then in the long term. The long term effect is that there’ll be less incentive for producers to make entertainment material if it’s just going to be stolen anyway. This was exemplified with the series Hannibal, a psychological thriller that aired from 2013-2015. After 3 seasons, Hannibal was canceled because of low ratings. But it’s important to note that it was the 5th most illegally downloaded show in 2013. Martha De Laurentiis, an executive producer on Hannibal, said one third of the total audience came from pirate sites. In a piece for The Hill, De Laurentiis said, “You don’t have to know calculus to do the math. If a show is stolen, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to fairly compensate a crew and keep a series in production.”

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