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How the Entertainment Industry Solved Piracy, Then Made It Popular Again

Streaming services are starting to look a lot like cable packages.

In the past ten years, we lost hope in American politics, realized we were being watched on the internet, and finally broke the gender binary (kind of). So many of the beliefs we held to be true at the beginning of the decade have since been proven false—or at least, much more complicated than they once seemed. The Decade of Disillusion is a series that tracks how the hell we got here.

For decades now, the entertainment industry has struggled to realize that the best way to stop piracy is to offer consumers better, cheaper products. Instead, the industry spent much of the early aughts suing and vilifying potential customers or lobbying for copyright laws like the DMCA that created more problems than they professed to solve.


Only in the last 10 years has the industry’s thinking finally started to evolve. Instead of treating would-be customers as nefarious villains, companies began listening to data showing that—fair or not—the industry needs to view piracy as a competitor. In short, it finally learned the best way to stop piracy is to listen to consumers and start giving them what they want. That lesson remains a work in progress. While video streaming has exploded in the last decade, an ocean of costly services—all rushing to hide exclusive content behind paywalls—risk annoying consumers and driving them right back to piracy.


July 2011: Spotify Finally Gives US Consumers What They Want For much of the late 90s and 2000s internet users routinely flocked to Napster, BitTorrent, or other peer to peer (P2P) services to download digital music content they often couldn’t find online. The industry’s response wasn’t subtle; it engaged in a scorched earth legal campaign to sue everybody from college kids to grandmothers in the hopes of putting an end to the practice. It didn’t work: despite shelling out more than $17 million in the early aughts to sue potential customers, the industry saw less than $400,000 in actual settlements. The lawsuits didn’t stop piracy, either.

Enter Spotify, whose 2011 launch finally delivered a popular service that was easy to use, had an extensive library of songs, didn’t cost an arm and a leg, and brought some much needed competition to Apple’s domination of the digital space. Many former pirates were quick to flock to the service, supporting studies that showed the best way to beat piracy was through innovation and better services, not lawsuits.


January 18, 2012: SOPA and PIPA Protests Shut Down The Internet

The entertainment industry’s most controversial attempt to stop piracy in the last decade came in the form of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). The bills were so poorly written they risked imposing vast new censorship systems on the internet. And the backlash to them was so severe, the internet all but shut down in protest in early 2012. “The rejection of SOPA/PIPA was monumental in showing that Hollywood couldn't just scream ‘piracy’ to get Congress to do whatever it wanted to expand the power and control of copyright laws,” copyright expert Mike Masnick told Motherboard. Masnick noted that in the three decades prior to SOPA, Congress had passed 15 separate new "anti-piracy" laws, none of which actually stopped piracy, but all of which gave legacy studios and record labels ever more power and control. “The rejection of SOPA/PIPA showed that the public was no longer willing to accept vague scaremongering about ‘piracy’ as an excuse to give up more control and to limit the internet,” Masnick said.


February 2013: The Rise (And Fall) Of “Six Strikes” Another major cornerstone of the entertainment industry’s war on piracy was its much heralded Copyright Alert System (CAS). First launched in February 2013, the project was a joint effort between the entertainment industry and internet service providers (ISPs) intended to scare would-be pirates away from piracy with an escalating series of warnings and penalties. Also dubbed “six strikes,” the penalties for accused pirates ranged from having your connection speed throttled and your broadband suspended until you acknowledged receipt of “educational” copyright materials provided by the entertainment industry. Little was done to independently verify industry piracy allegations, and users had to pay a $35 fee just to protest their innocence. Users who received such notices could easily hide their BitTorrent transfers behind VPNs and proxies to avoid detection. Despite endless claims that the project dramatically reduced piracy, the effort was ultimately shut down in 2017 with absolutely no evidence it actually accomplished much of anything useful.


2018: Worried About Liability, ISPs Kick Users Offline While the six strikes initiative no longer exists, ISPs have since been forced into taking even tougher positions against pirates. After ISPs like Cox were sued by the music industry for allegedly not doing enough to thwart piracy, many ISPs like AT&T began kicking some users off the internet entirely for piracy. Like six strikes, there’s little to no evidence this is actually helping reduce piracy rates. Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have argued that terminating consumer access to an essential utility for violating copyright is an absurd and draconian overreaction.


2019: The Rise of Streaming Video (And The Glut Of Annoying Exclusives)

Despite its worst impulses, the decade did see the rise of an endless roster of streaming video alternatives, letting consumers finally cut the TV cord. While the sector had to be dragged kicking and streaming toward offering better alternatives to bloated cable bundles, the end result is an ocean of less expensive services with the kind of customer service that puts Comcast to shame. But there’s trouble in paradise. As every broadcaster and their uncle rush to jump into the space, consumers are being inundated with confusing license agreements and content exclusives, forcing them to hunt and peck through services to find the TV shows and movies that used to be available in more centralized repositories like Netflix. Studies have shown there’s a real risk that confused consumers may simply return to piracy, and there’s some early anecdotal evidence that may already be happening.

If there’s a lesson from the last decade in piracy, it’s that you can’t “defeat” piracy, you can only mitigate its impact. Data suggests piracy acts as a sort of invisible competitor and a metric of consumer dissatisfaction. You don’t stop it by suing grandmothers or buying problematic laws, you do so by listening to consumers and providing better, cheaper, simpler services.

That remains very much a lesson in progress, and there’s some evidence that if the entertainment industry isn’t careful, history will just keep on repeating itself.