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December 21, 2015

Will Torrents Slow To A Trickle?

For years, anti-piracy groups have struggled to stem the flow of illegal content downloads via BitTorrent. The effort is akin to Whack-A-Mole: for every torrent site that gets taken down, three more pop up to take its place.

However, recent developments show that the anti-piracy cause is making real and lasting progress.

In November, the MPAA succeeded in shutting down the high-traffic torrent site YTS.to by reaching a private, out-of-court settlement. The private agreement is said to involve payments for damages as well as information sharing. The YTS.to domain is now owned by the MPAA. This torrent site was a major source of origin for much of the web’s pirated video content, so this move represents a significant blow to movie piracy. The news site TorrentFreak declared the site shutdown “the end of an era.”

The entertainment industry has also seen success through the work of BREIN, an anti-piracy group based in the Netherlands that works against high-volume uploaders. After identifying highly-active offenders, they initiate legal actions to stop them from contributing to pirate networks. BREIN’s most recent success came against the popular Kickass Torrents site, which has been reported to subject its users to malware.

The news of the shutdown dovetails with a trend of less demand for pirated content. For many, the wide availability of inexpensive streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Pandora and Spotify has supplanted illegal downloading. Pirate downloading is also being replaced by ad supported “freemium” services that provide the option to pay for an ad-free experience with more content and features. It’s become clear that users are less likely to opt for piracy when they can easily find the content they’re looking for.

Recently, recording artists such as Taylor Swift have criticized the streaming model, arguing it doesn’t compensate artists enough. A high-profile and recent example of this came from the soul singer Adele, who recently opted not to make her highly-anticipated new album “25” available on streaming services. Adele’s decision to eschew streaming services in exchange for a 90s-style album release is a double-edged sword for the music industry. On one hand, the strategy succeeded: Adele’s album became the first-ever record to sell more than 3 million copies in a single week. On the other hand, Adele’s “25” quickly became the #2 most pirated album on the internet following her appearance on Saturday Night Live.

It’s hard to argue with Adele’s decision, given its successful outcome. But her case is anything but typical. Adele’s mainstream fan base doesn’t fit the typical profile of music pirates – they were always likely to buy the album upon its release. Most artists see benefits from the freemium model in the forms of exposure and compensation.

The “freemium” solution is successful when it comes reducing the incidence of piracy.
However, if more artists follow Adele’s lead, we risk a return to old models that are proven to fail.

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