Coronavirus: As theatre attendance declines, movie piracy soars and uncomfortable questions arise

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By Steve Hawley

A Friday conversation meandered into a discussion of how the coronavirus outbreak might drive video piracy and the media industry’s responses to it.  A March 3rd article in The Hollywood Reporter cited analyst estimates that it could cost the movie industry $5 Billion in lost box office revenue.

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Where will people turn to watch the latest theatrical releases if they are house-bound?

Intuition would say that piracy will increase – and right on cue, an ironic confirmation came in the form of an article in Forbes: that piracy of the 2011 Stephen Soderbergh movie ‘Contagion’ was up by more than 5,000% between December 2019 and January 31, 2020; according to the anti-piracy technology company MUSO.

A Google Trends search for ‘Contagion Movie‘ in the United States shows how online demand for this movie has increased just in recent weeks.  Proportionally speaking, for every 100 views on March 5th, there were only 16 views on February 19th.

Source: Google Trends (Search for: ‘contagion movie’)

(Added March 14) The week between March 8 and March 14 saw further increase:

Source: Google Trends (search for ‘contagion movie’)

Piracy demand is also up for current movies

Online demand is also on the rise for movies that are in current theatrical release, which are not yet available through legitimate pay TV or online video providers.

Pixar’s Onward was released in the US on February 29, 2020.  This plot represents just a week’s data, so while day-to-day peaks and troughs in demand are readily visible, the trend was clearly upward.

Source: Google Trends (Search for ‘download onward movie’)

The two peaks to the right were for Friday and Saturday nights (March 6 and 7), while the troughs were in the middle of weekend days, when likely viewers were likely to be engaged in other activities.

On March 14, the weekend saw ‘download onward movie‘ on the upswing after a slump on weekdays.  The curve is smoother because the sample size is larger.

Source: Google Trends (download onward movie)

Other movies were not experiencing upward piracy trends: both 1917 and The Call of the Wild were trending downward as of March 8th.  This could be simply because demand is decreasing for these movies in general.

Why it matters

The coronavirus epidemic prompts some uncomfortable questions about piracy detection and anti-piracy enforcement.  Using current technologies, video providers can associate content with users, pinpoint the user’s location and discern details about the user’s device.

So, what should happen when a consumer end user is detected accessing pirated video?

  • Should the video provider be lenient if a region or country is under quarantine, or should it be anti-piracy business as usual?
  • Once credential sharing or account abuse is detected, should infringing users be shut down? Or should video providers allow them to continue watching?
  • In the spirit of goodwill, should video providers invite detected infringers – under home quarantine or otherwise – to take legal services with incentives such as extended free trial periods and special bundled offers?
  • As consumers suffer personal consequences from coronavirus, is it the right time for video providers to make matters more difficult for them, or is rights protection more important than consumer considerations?

This article is to raise the questions, not to answer them. What do you think?

Video providers can also can identify where the content was hosted and the path that the content took to reach the user. For the record, I don’t think there should be any change in position about the pirates.  They are intentional infringers and should be treated as such.

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