A decade ago the media sector, in effect, saw off digital piracy. Now piracy is on the way back.
Last week the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) published a report showing piracy declined slowly over the years until 2021 when the trend was reversed. Last year piracy ticked up 3.3 per cent.
EUIPO's numbers are for Europe, but seem to be inline with anecdotal evidence of other markets including New Zealand. While the data is useful, it is based on visits to websites and doesn't cover other forms of digital piracy.
When media is abundant and affordable
It's not hard to understand why piracy went out of fashion. Media companies made their properties abundantly availably in a wide variety of formats. What's more, they charged consumers a reasonable price.
Streaming music and video service came close to killing off illegal movie, television and music downloads. Streamers
sold generous bundles of material for the cost of a couple of cups of coffee each month.
Piracy was no longer worth the effort.
The bad old days
Now those days are returning. At least in certain sectors.
If you dive into EUIPO's numbers, music, movies and software piracy remain low. There isn't zero piracy in these areas, but it has become marginal.
The main concern is television piracy which is on the way back up. It now makes up about half of all illegal downloads.
EUIPO also notes a newer form of piracy where people steal publications. It says manga comic books are the most popular illegal downloads in this category with audiobooks and ebooks showing up in sizable numbers. As an aside, the ebook market is a mess regardless of piracy.
The report also covered streaming sports. EUIPO says there is not much data to work with, but it saw an increase of 75 per cent in the two years from the start of 2021.
Piracy is wealth-related
The report found the level of piracy within a European nation depends on relative wealth with more piracy in poorer countries and less in richer ones. There is a close correlation with the level of youth unemployment. Bored youngsters with time on their hands are more inclined to pirate.
This squares with the idea that people, in general, are willing to pay if they can. It also suggests that streaming companies might do better if they adjust their prices to local economies.
A series of practices are degrading the consumer streaming experience and driving people back into the hands of pirates.
First, unbundling. Ten years ago there were a handful of large streaming companies with sizeable libraries of movies and shows.
Over time companies like Disney pulled their material from the aggregate streamers and started their own services. This amounts to a substantial price rise with consumers needing to spend more on subscriptions to get the same amount of good material.
Second was Netflix's crack-down on password sharing. For years the company encouraged customers to share accounts. That changed. Again, this amounts to a hidden price rise for customers.
Add in the company's cavalier approach to killing off popular shows and all the goodwill accumulated over the years was dissipated.
A third thinly disguised price hike comes with companies adding advertising supported subscriptions to their mix.
This week the BBC reported Amazon Prime Video content to start including ads next year.
As with the other services, you can pay more for a subscription and not be subjected to advertising. In effect this amounts to a 30 per cent price rise for people continuing to get the same level of service as before.
No doubt the streaming companies will argue they deserve to extract higher profits for their product. After all, they aren't in business as a public service. Yet, if their actions continue to drive consumers into piracy, they could be counterproductive. Someone needs to remind them of the story about killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.