shiver me timbers

Piracy Is Back

Photo: Milan Vasicek/Getty Images/iStockphoto

For a while there, it seemed like piracy was over. The major media conglomerates had figured it out. Thanks to broadband internet and adequate streaming technology, it was easier to access movies and TV and music legally than to turn to peer-to-peer file-sharing. Just a few years after it seemed to threaten the entire entertainment industry, piracy had become the domain of obsessives and paranoiacs — cinephiles and audiophiles who wanted to possess local copies of high-quality media that couldn’t be wrenched away at any time by corporate overlords — while even the most dedicated former movie torrenters were happy with Netflix and its ilk.

Streaming media has been successful. But possibly it’s been too successful. Where there was once only Netflix and grainy clips with a Divx watermark on YouTube, there are now dozens of streaming services in operation or slated to launch soon. I’m just gonna try and name some off the top of my head: Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, Spotify, Apple Music, Disney+, Apple TV+, Quibi, CrunchyRoll, the Criterion Channel, YouTube Red, Amazon Prime Video, Amazon Prime Music, Tidal, CBS All Access, Crackle, Sling, PlayStation Vue, ESPN+, DC Universe, Aereo (RIP), Seeso (RIP), VRV, Boomerang. These services generally cost between $5 and $15 a month, and if you were going to pay for all of them, you’d end up paying about as much as a monthly cable-TV subscription.

You know what’s free? Illegally downloaded movies. Piracy is back.

For years, consumers griped about cable bundling — having to pay high prices for hundreds of channels that they never watched in order to get the handful they did watch. The unrealized dream was that at some point cable companies would relent and offer à la carte pricing, in which customers only paid for the channels they wanted. It appears now that the streaming market saturation has led to a refracted version of this problem, show bundling. Fans don’t want all of a streaming service — they only want certain shows on it.

Yesterday, thousands of Netflix subscribers who need to get out more and try new things were distraught to learn that the NBC sitcom The Office would be leaving Netflix at the end of 2020. Cue that one GIF of Michael Scott yelling “Nooo!”

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There it is. On Twitter, Netflix (which is a website and not a person) said it was sad that NBC would do this. “We’re sad that NBC has decided to take The Office back for its own streaming platform — but members can binge watch the show to their hearts’ content ad-free on Netflix until January 2021.” In other words, please please please don’t cancel your subscription until 2021.

It seems like Netflix is caught in a catch-22: it can’t stand to lose mega-popular shows that help it retain users, but it makes more money when it owns programs entirely. That’s why Netflix’s front page and push notifications usually advertise its own productions, Netflix Originals, rather than ones it licenses from elsewhere, even though its most popular shows are licensed fare of the Office and Friends vintage. (Catch-22, by the way, is now streaming on Hulu.)

Everything is splintering. Now if you want to both keep habitually rewatching The Office and keep up on, I dunno, The Crown, you’ll have to pay two subscription fees, instead of one. Disney’s upcoming streaming service will be the only place to catch Avengers: Endgame, which is unfortunate for anyone who might’ve gotten sucked in by watching Avengers: Infinity War, currently on Netflix. One subscription could, within a year, potentially become three — or more, as every studio and distributor who missed the first streaming boom yanks its IP back to each respective mothership and builds out its own service.

So you could pay for a dozen different services to try and consume every new series and album and movie you’re interested in legally. Or you could pay for it on home video, if it’s even available (The Office is $84.99 on Amazon right now). Or you could just pirate it.

Look, I’m not saying piracy is good, or even justifiable. I’m noting that the pop-culture industry is once again re-creating the conditions that allowed piracy to flourish in the first place. Piracy declined because the legal options for consuming media became easier than the illegal options. iTunes aggregated all of music within one storefront and eventually sold it DRM-free, and it made digital film rentals cheap. Before it started making its own stuff, Netflix aggregated thousands of films and shows and made them watchable at the push of a button (between 2010 and 2018, the number of films available on Netflix dropped 40 percent). Now the legal options for media consumption are once again becoming overly burdensome in both a financial and logistical sense. Even paying for a cable subscription won’t fix it. The best centralized place to find media is, once again, through piracy.

And before you shed a tear for the streaming companies, you should consider that they are victims of their own success. One could argue that the binge-watch culture that Netflix perpetuated has created an environment in which paying a monthly subscription fee again seems insane. Netflix releases original programming at an unsustainable clip now. You spend a weekend consuming an entire season and then it’s on to the next one. Almost nothing ever sticks, or matters. Binge-watch culture has devalued television to a substantial degree and it has the cascading effect of making streaming appear free of charge. Because streaming-media consumption is so ephemeral, and feels like it costs nothing, consumers might ask themselves “Why not just torrent only the programming I want?” if they think it’s not hurting anyone.

“But piracy is hurting them,” you say. Maybe! This line of thinking often relies on the idea that each instance of piracy represents one lost sale of the same item. This is a fallacy. In fact, the most active pirates often spend the most on legal content. Sometimes piracy is a “try before you buy” kind of thing, sometimes people just prefer having local files over the endless buffering of a stream. Regardless, the idea that online piracy is identical to theft is speculation at best, and so it’s difficult to argue that Netflix or HBO or Hulu or Spotify or whoever is missing money it would otherwise have.

Though piracy might make a comeback, it does so in a substantially different online environment than the one at the turn of the millennium. The hard lesson that the film and music industries learned the first time around is that fighting piracy in court is a foolhardy endeavor. You cannot scare people into not pirating things, you can only offer them better alternatives. Perhaps the bundle makes a comeback, but unlike traditional cable, the costs don’t become bloated and prohibitive. But that’s wishful thinking.

Furthermore, Gen Z and beyond might not even be familiar with the particulars of how piracy works (that The Office, a show that aired on NBC for years before Netflix licensed it, is thought of as a Netflix show feels very telling). Piracy never really went away, but The Pirate Bay, though unkillable, feels more like a nostalgia item these days. Knowing where to find the right album zips on the right file-locker sites feels like arcane, niche knowledge passed down from parent to child. Peer-to-peer file sharing doesn’t really exist on mobile, the dominant form of computing and media consumption among younger generations. Whether the streaming services will be able to anticipate this cyclical shift and know how to fight against it remains to be seen. It feels undeniable though that as the media industry expands and separates, piracy will be the thing that helps people tie everything together.