As video piracy continues to challenge companies, these are the seven components you need to consider when it comes to building an effective anti-piracy strategy. [updated December 2023]
It has not been an easy year in the battle against video piracy, but then, it never is. Piracy websites saw 215 billion visits in 2022, up 18% from the year previously, and the smart money is on that number rising again when the 2023 figures are analyzed. Close to three-quarters of that activity is associated with video, too, with close to half of all media piracy relating to TV shows. Movies make up the rest of the video component.
Parks Associates estimates that there will be a cumulative loss to piracy of $113 billion for streaming video providers serving US consumers alone by 2027. The good news from the graph generated from the data below is that the annual level is not rising. The bad news is that it is still high.
So, what can companies do to fight the ongoing menace of video piracy? There are different solutions and different routes, but when you boil them down, you have 7 factors that really come into play. So, with apologies to TE Lawrence, here are the 7 Pillars of an Effective Anti-Piracy Strategy.
The 7 Pillars
1. Be better than them
An extremely effective way to fight against piracy is to offer a service that is considerably better than anything consumers can access via illegal means. This is not always easy, as pirate services have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years as they have pivoted to live streaming and app-based approaches. However, it is an achievable target, and by offering the latest services (multi-platform seamless catch-up, holistic search, targeted ads where ads are offered, etc.), as well as high picture quality at low latency, legitimate broadcasters can always remain a step ahead of the illegal game.
Certainly, it is a good way of dissuading the sub-section of illegal content consumers that we can define as casual users, the ones that are doing it primarily because it is easy.
The difficulty is accomplishing this at an acceptable monthly payment to a price-sensitive market. The key here is to be always cheaper than the gold standard, which is currently presented by Netflix (though this is becoming more complex as AVOD tiers are introduced). Removing barriers to new consumers and ensuring they can sign on and pay for a model that suits them is important, which are among the reasons why the Super Aggregator approach is gaining such traction in the market. New tiered services rising from AVOD-driven to premium subscription-only are also ensuring a widening base for legitimate content.
2. Make it easy/Make it hard
In the same breath as you want to make it easy for consumers to sign up for legitimate services, you want to put as many obstacles in the way as you can to deter those looking to pirate your content. Exactly what these obstacles are is constantly evolving as the legitimate industry tries to stop piracy.
The problem is that technologies tend to either get hacked or superseded. HDCP didn’t last long in the market before the pirates found a way around it, while the broadcast ecosystem of Conditional Access Cards is being made rapidly redundant by a move away from Set-Top Box Technology and to streaming services (though that does somewhat depend on the market).
Broadcasters and operators need to future-proof their anti-piracy strategy as best as they can. This is particularly important as content owners are becoming increasingly careful about securing their IP and insisting on downstream accountability, with a growing trend to ensure anti-piracy strategies are examined and assessed as part of any licensing deal. Watermarking (see below) is now a feature of every RFP that is issued.
3. The right technology
Piracy has changed extraordinarily over the past few years. From a torrent-based experience that tended to need at least some computing knowledge to access content to Smart TV-based apps that are live-streaming premium content, it has become bigger, ‘better’ (from the pirate’s perspective, at least), and more pervasive.
That has meant that the technology used to stop it has had to speed up dramatically to operate as near the real-time performance window as the pirates do. It’s the old analogy of there being no use bringing a knife to a gunfight; you need the right tools for the job at hand.
Currently, that means solutions such as our own Dynamic Watermarking, which can identify the source of a leak in the video delivery chain rapidly and effectively and is robust enough to deal with the pirate’s countermeasures offered against it. Monitoring is also a key part of this effort; being able to stem a leak if you do not know it is occurring is of little use. Increasingly, this means AI-assisted proactive monitoring of a widening number of social media channels, niche websites, and more, as the pirates set up clouds of links to an ever-increasing number of servers.
4. A robust back-end
For that reason, it is vital that any anti-piracy strategy also includes a range of counter-measures that can be deployed swiftly against illegal streamers. These provide an increasingly sophisticated arsenal of weapons that seek to eliminate the problem from highly effective real-time messages that can pop up and suggest that consumers seek legal routes of content consumption to take down notices that can shut down entire sites.
Whichever approach is chosen, the key to its effectiveness is speed. For the more robust approaches, this requires an interlocked legal process to swing into action. Eventual prosecution will take time, obviously, but removing the content quickly from the internet — preferably while it is still broadcasting — is an important first step.
One of the things that rapidly becomes obvious when looking at any effective anti-piracy strategy is that individual action can only take companies so far. The most effective actions are the ones that look to secure content at all points of the production chain, from shoot to distribution, and amongst all the companies that are involved in the process. It’s not just companies in individual production chains either; the losses that can accumulate from piracy are enough to bring rivals together to take concerted and coordinated action. Indeed, some of the most effective anti-piracy actions have been taken by umbrella organizations that represent the interests of sometimes bitter rivals.
That is not to say that individual action is unimportant, however. The pirates will follow all the individual flows that make up a broadcast ecosystem, and as soon as they find a weak spot, that is, they will pounce and lever open a breach. Depending on the interconnections between companies, all can lose because of a gap in the defenses at one company or at one point in the chain.
It is also important to ensure that teamwork and collaboration are addressed at every level of a company internally with full buy-in from all departments. The way a company can promote its TV package — free trials are often very appreciated by pirates who can swiftly jump from one account to another once identified — or the way customers are registered into a CRM system — fake IDs and fake emails are common usages for pirates — can be as important as which anti-piracy service is used.
6. Education, education, education
One of the big problems with video piracy is how widespread it has become. As anyone working in the industry knows, attitudes towards video piracy are best described as ambivalent, with very few people actually identifying it as theft.
In some countries, this has grown to become a huge problem. A YouGov consumer survey reported in the AVIA Asia Video Industry Report 2020 revealed that in Indonesia, 29% of consumers use an Illegal Streaming Device — such as a Kodi Box, for example — to access pirated content, while a massive 63% of respondents access piracy streaming websites. Meanwhile, according to Parks Associates, in 2019, US Pay-TV and OTT operators lost about $9.1 billion to password piracy and sharing, and that will likely rise to $12.5 billion in 2024.
As already suggested, ‘Nudge therapy’, occasional messages reminding viewers that piracy is a crime — albeit one, like speeding, which is widespread enough to be unfortunately considered ‘normative’ by many — and has consequences for the creative industries, can be helpful. There has been a pronounced success with industry-led education campaigns, too. The same Asia Video Industry Report also records the successes of the #PlayItRight campaign in The Philippines that ran across YouTube and social media and helped contribute to a 53% downturn in traffic to illegal sites over a six-month period.
Elsewhere, campaigns have been undertaken that have highlighted the role of organized crime in pirate activities or pointed out the danger of exposure to malware and inappropriate material. Education works; it is a long game — it is not one that will stop your program from being streamed over YouTube in the here and now — but it is a worthwhile one.
7. A holistic approach
Video piracy is a problem from the moment an image is captured to the moment it is consumed. One of the keys to combatting it successfully is to make sure your approach covers all the bases. In the broadcast workflow, that means securing content on set, through post-production, and on to distribution; in the business, since it means being active in anti-piracy initiatives and looking to educate consumers to choose legitimate content sources more often; in the technological sense, it involves choosing the right solution and recognizing that it has to iterate over time. And when it comes to the anti-piracy solution itself, it means choosing one that is swift, agile, and effectively encompasses all of the above.
The 8th pillar: recalibrate your sights
Video piracy is not going to go away, and don’t believe anyone who ever tells you it will. While there is content of value to be had, somebody, somewhere, will try to steal it. It is a constant battle where each side makes progress in its technologies and weapons, and each enjoys a brief advantage for a little while until the other catches up.
Two things are important to note here. One is the continuous nature of the fight. If, in your current business operations, video piracy is not a problem, then that is a good thing — but it would be hubris to assume that the status quo will not change at some point in the future and your revenue will become threatened as a result.
The second key factor here is that video piracy is changing as a business. It is no longer a hobbyist industry run and maintained by a few individuals but a serious operation often run by organized crime, which has a worrying depth of both resources and expertise. This is why you must recalibrate your sights; you are not fighting individuals but ruthless and skilled organisations who are not minded to give up their investment into hacking your content easily.
To combat piracy takes time, effort, and money, but the returns are always worthwhile. And at least if you deploy The 7 Pillars of an Effective Anti-Piracy Strategy as listed above, the platform they support for the ongoing campaign will be a sturdy one.