Unpopular Opinion: It Should Be Okay to Watch Pirated Content If It's Not Available Locally
In its heyday, fantasy epic Game of Thrones was one of the most-watched TV shows in the world. This distinction carried one other notable fact: It was also one of the world’s most pirated TV shows. In fact, records show that the premiere episode of the show’s final season was pirated a mind-boggling 54 million times within the first 24 hours.
You’d think the creative team behind the show, not to mention the bosses of the network that aired it (HBO) would have raised a ruckus and fought hard to keep, well, the pirates at bay. You’d be wrong to think that, though.
Even the execs say it's okay
“We’ve been dealing with this issue for years with HBO, literally 20, 30 years, where people have always been running wires down on the back of apartment buildings and sharing with their neighbors,” Jeff Bewkes, the former CEO of Time Warner, which owns HBO, said. “Our experience is, it all leads to more penetration, more paying subs, more health for HBO, less reliance on having to do paid advertising…If you go around the world, I think you’re right, Game of Thrones is the most pirated show in the world. Well, you know, that’s better than an Emmy.”
Even one of the show’s directors, David Petrarca, said in 2013 that “illegal downloads did not matter because such shows thrived on ‘cultural buzz’ and capitalized on the social commentary they generated.”
So the fact that people didn’t have access to cable TV (or felt that it was too expensive) essentially drove piracy up. They just wanted to watch shows like Game of Thrones, and if you didn’t have cable, what choice was there?
But then video on demand became a thing. People could now watch movies and TV shows via streaming services like Netflix. Suddenly, it became immensely easier to watch the movie or TV show you’ve been looking for, so watching it guilt-free was as easy as getting a subscription. (I know I was happy when Netflix announced Friends was going to be on there.) And it’s not just video content. Looking for a song? You can listen to it legally on Spotify or Apple Music or Tidal and didn’t need to illegally download it. For a while, streaming sites seemed to have helped curb piracy.
Soon other companies wanted a slice of the streaming dollars. Amazon launched Amazon Prime, Apple has Apple TV+, HBO has HBO Go and HBO Max, and, of course, there’s Disney+, where you can get all your Disney, Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars content. And that’s just some of the more well-known companies that produce their own original content. In the Philippines, we have other streamers that license a variety of local and international video content, like hayu (mostly for reality TV content), iflix, iwantTV, Fox+, Viu, Crunchyroll, and others.
Must-see TV and movies
While Game of Thrones ended in 2019, it has since been replaced by other “must-watch” TV. In 2020, The Mandalorian, which streams on Disney+, inherited the title of the most-pirated TV show, followed by Amazon Prime’s The Boys, and HBO’s Westworld.
So why is piracy back up? Basically, if you want to watch a specific TV show, you need to be subscribed to the streaming service where it airs. It’d be a lot simpler if the content you’re looking for is available on the streaming service you’re already subscribed to. Sherlock and The Crown are both on Netflix, so that’s not a problem. But what do you do if you want to catch The Boys or Fleabag? Then you need to get Amazon Prime Video. Two weeks ago, HBO premiered Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the filmmaker’s four-hour-long superhero epic. So, of course, people scrambled to get HBO Go, the only streaming site where it was available here in the country.
In other words, we’re pretty much back to where we started, only this time, the “channels” are the streamers, and they're all sold separately, so to speak. It’s not really a problem when you’ve got money to burn. People are happy to open their purse strings to devour content, especially these days when there’s precious little to do inside our homes but sit on our couches and stare at the TV. But piracy is what happens when the content you want isn’t available on any of the legit streaming sites.
Earlier this year, Disney, which owns Marvel, premiered the first TV series in Phase 4 of the studio’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. WandaVision was a huge hit, judging by the critical reviews and the social media mentions every week when it dropped new episodes. It was quickly followed by the second TV series set in the MCU, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Both shows air on Disney+, which, as of this writing is, sadly, still not available in the Philippines.
So what do you do if you’re desperate to watch Sam and Bucky navigate life without Captain America? Some subscribe to a VPN, which circumvents the normal flow of data traffic so your location is essentially invisible to everyone, letting you sign-up to a streaming site that’s only available, say, in North America, from right here in the Philippines. But that requires a whole ‘nother subscription fee that you have to pay for on top of the ones you’re already shelling out for the streaming services.
You could do that, or you could choose not to pay anything at all. AKA piracy.
Piracy is illegal, but…
It’s been ingrained in our heads that piracy is illegal (Thanks, Derek “Pare, pulis ako” Ramsay). Of course it is, and we’re not saying that that’s a bad thing. But the way the industry is set up right now makes it increasingly difficult—not to mention expensive—for us viewers to get the shows that we actually want to watch. We’re flooded with so many options and required to pay for all of them when what we really want is just a few really good ones and the chance to watch them easily in peace.
When Netflix became available in the Philippines in 2016, that meant I didn’t have to buy pirated DVDs of Sense8 or ask a friend to download torrents of Black Mirror anymore. And clearly, I wasn’t alone in this thinking. According to data, Netflix’s user base surged from 70.8 million in 2015 to over 203 million as of the end of 2020. (That’s more than the entire country of Nigeria, which is the seventh most populous country in the world.) What this proves is that people are more than willing to pay for content if you make that option available.
But that was five years ago. Since then, Netflix has been busy churning out its own original content at a faster clip, possibly because it might be losing some of its shows to rival streaming sites. For example, Marvel properties like Ironman, Thor, and Captain America: Civil War used to be on Netflix, but, since Disney was launching Disney+, it naturally wanted its IP back and make them exclusively available on its own service. According to BusinessInsider in 2018, Netflix has lost over 2,000 movie titles since 2010.
The company has said that its strategy is to focus more on TV shows rather than movies (which makes sense), but you can’t help but wonder if it’s also partly because Netflix has been forced to give up some of the titles in its catalog, especially when you consider the fact that more entertainment companies are launching their own VOD services. NBC, which is owned by NBCUniversal and Comcast, has Peacock; CBS, which is owned by ViacomCBS, has All-Access, which has since become Paramount Plus; and then, of course, there’s HBO Max, which gets all the Warner movies. The reality is that entertainment options have become more and more segmented, just like how it was during the time of cable TV. This is another theory to explain why people are once again turning to piracy.
Give the people what they want
I’m personally already subscribed to Netflix and eventually decided to get Amazon Prime Video primarily to get my fix of Parks and Recreation (I’ve since discovered other great shows there like Tales from the Loop, Superstore, and The Boys). When I purchased a new Macbook, it came with a one-year free subscription to Apple TV+, which is great, but I’m not sure if I’d be willing to pay for it after a year.
What I would be willing to pay for is Disney+ as I’m a huge Marvel geek and have happily devoured everything Kevin Feige has thrown at us. But the unavailability of the service in the country means there’s little option for me and countless other fans to watch the new Marvel shows outside of piracy. Streaming companies expect people to sign up for their own service when they offer “must-see” content, but it’s unreasonable to expect them to sign up to four, five, even six services and pay a monthly fee for each when all you really ever want (and have time for) is just a few specific titles.
Some people will choose to see this as a black-and-white issue—piracy is bad and is never justifiable. But it’s incredibly nuanced, and I suspect there are those who see it as morally gray. Here’s the bottom line: The reason piracy continues to flourish is because there’s just no better alternative for people out there to get the TV shows and movies that they want. If they did, and it was at a reasonable price, we’d probably see fewer people choosing to watch pirated content.