Broadband networks and streaming services alike have seen an unsurprising, major surge in usage during the COVID-19 lockdown. But the pandemic is also driving users to pirated movie websites in greater numbers than ever before, according to piracy tracking firms. Data provided to Motherboard by London-based Muso TNT show that between February 20 and March 20, visits to pirated movie websites by users in both the U.S. and UK jumped 31 percent. The data shows similar growth in Spain (35 percent), Portugal (37 percent), India (33 percent), and Germany (30 percent), with Italy the highest overall at 50 percent.
In just one month in the U.S. alone, the firm tracked 137 million page views to more than 19,000 websites offering streaming and BitTorrent access to pirated films, and more than 601 million page views of sites offering access to pirated TV content. The company says its data originates from an “industry-leading website traffic data provider.” The kind of piracy rates that used to be exclusive to weekends now occur all week long due to the pandemic, the company said. “Piracy is quite a complex picture,” Muso CEO Andy Chatterley told Motherboard. “There’s a lot of variances from region to region, media type to media type. We do see peaks and spikes at various key points like weekends and holidays but these increases are unprecedented in our data.” The firm has been tracking the pandemic’s impact on global piracy traffic since January, and had already predicted a global piracy surge after watching similar trends in China, where more than 70,000 traditional movie theaters were closed at the beginning of the year. “Our data shows that film piracy visits increased by 89 percent from January 18th to January 26th, the day after Chinese New Year and when the news of the pandemic was starting to spread globally,” the firm said. Pirates seem particularly interested in more apocalyptic fare, with pirated views of 2011’s Contagion and 2013’s Pandemic jumping 152 percent and 240 percent, respectively. Researchers found that while pirated film access has surged, access to pirated live TV streams has seen slower growth due to the cancellation of sporting events. Muso also found a significant jump in overall BitTorrent usage, noting a 36.39% spike in average daily torrent downloads between January and February. Before the pandemic, network performance tracking companies like Sandvine had already been seeing an increase in BitTorrent traffic after years of decline. Why? Many users, annoyed by the flood of new streaming services and the rise of platform exclusives, have started reverting to piracy as a simpler and more affordable alternative to multiple streaming subscriptions. “Piracy is a level playing field,” Muso wrote in one recent white paper. “No walled data-garden, no exclusivity, no windowing and no theatrical release. It’s all there: consumption with no barriers.”
To dodge the watchful eye of the entertainment industry and their partners in the telecom sector, many users access BitTorrent and copyright infringing websites using encrypted VPNs to protect their IP address, traffic type, and identity. The company told Motherboard VPN users are excluded from their tallies, meaning actual piracy rates could be notably higher.
With more users stuck at home, additional piracy isn’t particularly surprising. Especially given that many major US ISPs have temporarily suspended usage caps and overage fees after being criticized for restrictions widely viewed as little more than a monopolistic cash grab. Users that grow accustomed to piracy during the pandemic may not be keen on returning to traditional television or even streaming services once some semblance of normalcy returns given the financial hardships the pandemic is already creating.
“Considering the financial crisis element of the pandemic, something has to give for the consumer,” Chatterley said. “If they discover piracy now the question is do they go back to multiple subscriptions?”