How Piracy Makes Legal Streaming Services Better

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We tend to look at piracy as the antithesis of Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, or Prime Video. But as it turns out, you can thank ruthless digital pirates for the low price and high quality of your favorite streaming services.

Piracy Created Streaming

Without piracy, streaming wouldn’t exist. Or, at least, it would only exist in some bastardized form. This is a bold claim, but if you look at the history of streaming, the connection seems quite apparent.

Let’s start with iTunes. While iTunes isn’t a streaming service, it’s arguably the first true precursor to services like Spotify. And guess what, its inception was a direct response to piracy.

During the ’90s and early 2000s, record companies charged ridiculously high prices for CDs. Their idea was that, if people liked a hit single, then they’d shell out $20 (about $30 when adjusted for inflation) for a CD just to own the single.

Naturally, this business model can’t work digitally. On a digital store, people can purchase a hit single and avoid buying a whole album. So, record companies avoided digital services like the plague. In response, piracy boomed. P2P services like Napster made music free for everyone, and the record industry is still reeling from the after-shocks.

A screenshot of Napster from the AOL Napster Documentary
Napster/AOL

Apple saw this as an opportunity and put together iTunes, the first successful digital music store. But in the end, iTunes led people back to piracy because of its stupid DRM (anti-sharing) policies that Steve Jobs openly hated. Services like Spotify cropped up in response, and the rest is history.

A year after the launch of Spotify, Netflix unveiled its video streaming services, mostly to fill a similar hole in the market. DVDs were expensive ($25-$30 each), and even video rentals were unfairly priced (not to mention inconvenient) due to the massive overhead that comes with running a store like Blockbuster.

Piracy Encourages High-Quality Streaming

We’ve spent a lot of time complaining about the cable-ization of streaming services. As video streaming becomes more popular, subscription costs go up, streaming libraries get smaller, and more businesses build exclusive services. Not to mention, big streaming services sometimes try to cut costs by damaging the user experience.

In 2018, Amazon quietly cut its Prime Video file sizes in half. Obviously, this lowered the video quality of Prime Video, and it pissed a lot of people off. And oddly enough, the biggest (and fastest) response came from the pirate community.

Pirates with video-ripping know-how confirmed Amazon’s misdeeds by checking the file sizes and bitrates of video all across Amazon. Only people who want to steal videos from streaming services know how to do that. Then, they spread this information to the press, abandoned their Prime accounts, and pirated high-quality versions of Amazon exclusive videos.

In the end, Amazon reversed its video quality changes, thanks to the pirating community. Everyone’s Amazon video streaming quality went back up. And while this is a very specific example of piracy leading to high-quality streaming, there are some less specific examples to consider. Just look at Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu’s newfound (albeit overdue) interest in 4K streaming. Pirates have been obsessed with 4K for a while now (even though public torrenting sites have some low-quality video files), and streaming services are just starting to catch on.

Piracy Keeps Streaming Costs Down

The Hulu signup page, with its nice, low prices.
Hulu

But pirates don’t just obsess over video quality. Quite naturally, they obsess over prices, too. And, in the world of subscription-based streaming, we’re continually expected to pay more for less content.

Basically, streaming sites compete with one another by offering exclusive content. But this exclusive content comes at a significant cost. When a show like Friends is on the table, businesses are willing to pay to the tune of $100 million for a contract. It makes sense, Friends is the second most popular show on Netflix, after all.

But $100 million is a ton of money. After dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on exclusive content, streaming sites are forced to recover costs by increasing subscription prices and terminating unprofitable contracts.

As you’ve probably guessed, this encourages people to pirate content. Every time Netflix gets more expensive, usage of torrenting clients like BitTorrent goes up. While this may not be a fair (or legal) response from the pirating community, it sends a quiet message to streaming sites and media corporations: content should be accessible, and, if it isn’t, then we won’t pay for it.

That’s part of the reason why Hulu and Disney+ are so focused on offering robust, low priced services. Even if a streaming service has to operate at a loss to bring in customers, at least it has more dedicated users than its competitors. Over time, streaming sites and media corporations may finally listen and abandon the exclusive contracts that are, in all honesty, turning streaming into a new generation of cable TV.

Piracy Gives Us Access to Our Culture

Culturally relevant movies, like Star Wars and Disney animated classics, are notoriously hard to watch at home. Disney’s Snow White, for example, is only available for streaming on Amazon for $18 and on Vudu for $15.

A frame of the "Disney Vault" opening sequence from "The Magic of Walt Disney World."
Disney

Let’s be real for a second. Is it worth paying $15 for Snow White, an 82-year-old film, on a website that follows a failing business model? Films like Snow White are incredibly important to our culture. They’re cornerstones of storytelling, animation, and film history. And while studios like Disney deserve to continue making money from classic movies, everyday people also deserve to engage in their culture at a reasonable price. It’s incredible how media corporations fail to understand this.

Luckily, piracy encourages studios to make culturally relevant movies more open. Because of piracy, Disney is abandoning the “Disney vault” to offer all its movies for just $7 a month on Disney+. Isn’t that interesting? Two months with Disney’s entire library costs less than a copy of Snow White on Vudu.

As a side note, many of these old, culturally relevant movies should be in the public domain. If Disney hadn’t lobbied for ridiculous copyright laws in the ’80s and ’90s, then you’d be able to access a ton of 20th-century films for free. Like record companies, movie studios have practically encouraged piracy by turning cultural cornerstones into exclusive, expensive commodities. The fact that piracy helps level the playing field is both ironic and deeply satisfying. We hope that there won’t be a need for piracy in the future, but for now, it’s keeping things in check.

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