Fighting against digital piracy in the streaming age

The continuing impact of digital piracy and the solutions to protect against it

By Jayesh Varsani

With the anticipated launch of several new streaming platforms by industry heavyweights in the coming months, it might be easy to forget that the digital piracy industry is booming—and it’s costing legitimate content distribution billions.

According to a recent study from the US Chamber of Commerce’s Global Innovation Policy Center digital piracy costs the US TV and film industry at least an estimated $29.2 billion dollars and as much as $71 billion annually [i].

There was a time when the barriers to accessing pirated content were significant enough to deter viewers; pirated content was difficult to find, and files had to be downloaded from torrent indexing sites which often contained malware and were subpar quality content. Once downloaded, the content then had to be converted and altered to be played on a TV.

Fast forward several years and today, all this has become substantially easier and viewers have significantly more options.

No longer bungling around with files, viewers can choose from a wide range of platforms streaming illegal pirated content. In addition, the ownership and use of multiple mobile devices, advancement in high-speed broadband and availability of low-cost storage have helped drive the steady incline in digital piracy.

Although the content industry has been able to shut down several illegal file-sharing services such as Openload and Streamango, digital piracy is still as prevalent as ever. A report from the Canadian broadband management company Sandvine shows that prior to the takedown of Openload, the file-sharing site was generating 0.8% [ii] of all video traffic online. This was more than many legal streaming services such as Hulu and HBO Go.

Global video streaming traffic share

Source: Sandvine (from an October 2018 report)

As digital piracy has become easier and more sophisticated, content owners and distributors need to be as vigilant as ever. In this blog post, we touch on the impact and discuss potential solutions that can detect, prevent, and ultimately reduce digital pirate activity.

What is digital piracy?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, digital piracy is defined as ‘the practice of illegally copying and selling digital music, video, computer software, etc. [iii]

For the content industry, digital piracy is the unauthorised reproduction and distribution of copyrighted material; this includes all types of digital content such as movies, music, software and ebooks.

Piracy practices do not only negatively affect the creative artists and rights holders, they also threaten content production and the wider content industry.

Although much of this article applies to the wider content industry, we focus the discussion around the digital video content sector.

What is the impact of digital piracy?

Digital piracy affects the entire legitimate content distribution network—from the product creator to the distributor, and all the way to the consumer. Some of the repercussions of digital piracy are:

Revenue loss

Digital piracy hugely impacts the revenue potential for content creators. For example, in a study reported by TechCrunch, it was estimated that “Netflix could be losing $192 million in monthly revenue from piracy – more than either Amazon or Hulu, at $45 million per month” [iv].

Reduced production funding

The loss of revenue earnings as a result of piracy may ultimately reduce the incentives of content owners to invest in the quality of their existing productions or to invest in new ones. Piracy can also result in production being completely stopped.

For example, although the cancellation of the American psychological horror-thriller NBC TV series, Hannibal, was due to ‘poor ratings’, the series was ranked as the fifth most illegally downloaded show in 2013 [v]. Disappointed fans of the show can only look to themselves and peers to blame, as according to its producer, Martha De Laurentils, “Hannibal’s cancellation had a lot to do with piracy” [vi].

Increased security risks

Digital piracy also impacts the security of those accessing illegal content online. Pirates use content to spread malware, trojans and viruses. A study done by Cybersecurity firm RiskIQ found that one in three piracy websites contained some type of Malware. It also concluded that users using content theft sites were 28 times more likely to get malware than those using legal media streaming websites [vii].

Reputation damage

The impact piracy has on the reputation of content producers is often overlooked as it is difficult to measure. However, poorly made counterfeit copies can degrade the reputation of content creators in the eyes of consumers.

How companies can protect content and prevent digital piracy

Digital piracy may never be completely eradicated; however, there are measures that can be implemented to significantly reduce and safeguard against it.

Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a common defense solution used to protect against digital piracy.

This technology restricts unauthorized duplication of content and enables content owners to enforce licensing requirements. This protection is implemented by embedding code which prevents content from being distributed without permission. It also restricts the ways users can obtain content.

As described by Airin Zainul, the Director of the OTT streaming service Tonton, “The software is encrypted, so the system works in a way that even when the user has downloaded a video, he won’t be able to share it.” Consumers can download content to watch later, but it can only be viewed on the Tonton platform as the video will not be saved on their devices. Even if they had taken a screenshot of the video, the image will be blacked out [viii].

Forensic Watermarking

Watermarking solutions can be used to deter and reduce digital piracy. A visible watermark helps to deter piracy, whereas an invisible watermark can help hinder pirate distribution.

|Read: Video Watermarking and the Battle against Piracy|

An invisible watermark embeds unique data in a media file such as a video, which cannot be seen by the naked eye but can be easily identified by the watermarking solutions detection system. Identical versions of the same piece of content can each be embedded with a unique watermark. This allows content owners to identify which specific piece of content was leaked and they can then trace the leak back to the person responsible.


Fingerprinting allows content owners to easily determine if their content has been illegally uploaded to websites such as YouTube.

For example, when user attempts to upload a file to YouTube, YouTube’s fingerprint identification system analyses the file and checks it against the fingerprints within its database to see if the content is copyrighted material.

It is worth noting that fingerprinting is not the same as watermarking. Unlike watermarking which involves inserting identifiable marks into the content, fingerprinting involves the process of analysing the video and audio to create a digital fingerprint that is unique to that specific piece of content.

Website Blocking

Website blocking is another popular tool used for combating digital piracy. Rightsholders work with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to large-scale illegal streaming websites. There are three main methods for website blocking: Internet Protocol address blocking, Domain Name Server blocking and Uniform Resource Locator blocking.

A study by the researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Chapman University found website blocking to be quite an effective way of combatting digital piracy. They analysed the impact of a court order in 2014 that had ISPs block access to 53 specific websites in the United Kingdom. The report concluded that website blocking did in fact cause a decrease in digital piracy and an increase in new paid subscriptions as the use of legal streaming websites rose from 7 to 12 percent [ix].

Take-down Notices

Rights owners and distributors also employ piracy countermeasures to interrupt and take down pirated content.

These vary from traditional take-down notices to custom real-time messages. TV service providers and operators can identify which consumers are watching illegal streams and motivate them to switch to legal services. These notices of copyright infringements allow the consumers to become aware that they alone are responsible for their actions online.

Copyright infringement notices have proven to be quite effective and are used by many major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in partnership with copyright holders.

Legal Strategies and Anti-Piracy Investigations

Legal strategies and anti-piracy investigations include the prosecution of individuals and companies that upload and download pirated content. According to Legal Beagle the civil penalty for copyright violations in the United States is $150,000 per infringement, meaning a civil suit can cost a violator millions of dollars [x].

Anti-piracy investigations enable content owners to identify where and how content is being leaked and provide a better understanding of the risks an organisation is vulnerable to and their potential scale.

Once the scale of the illegal distribution of content has been determined, steps can then be taken to rectify this, and a strategy can be defined that can help businesses and operational processes adapt to the piracy threats faced.

Anti-piracy investigations are one of the most effective solutions to digital piracy as illustrated by the Premier League who carried out one of the world’s largest anti-piracy investigations to date. Overall, 14 locations were raided, 5 arrests were made, and authorities were able to shut down an illegal IPTV streaming business, which was allowing access to more than 800 television channels [xi].

Consumer Strategies

Consumer confusion around digital piracy is a serious issue. It can be difficult for the average internet user to differentiate between illegal and legal content with the many streaming services available.

While a user may know that downloading a full-length movie from a P2P network is illegal, most internet users would assume that an online video streaming website, especially one with a membership fee, is providing legal content.

This may worsen with the advent of the “streaming wars” and the launch of new services, such as Disney+ and Apple TV Plus contending with already popular streaming platforms Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.

Educating the public on the impact of digital piracy is vital, as well as teaching consumers how to differentiate between legitimate and illegal content platforms.

However, perhaps the most effective way to dealing with digital piracy is customer experience and pricing, in addition to the content library. Giving users a simple, easy-to-use interface with no buffering and excellent video quality may deter viewers away from poor quality pirate platforms and content copies. If companies provide great service at an attractive price-point, consumers may be less compelled by piracy routes.


Without a doubt, digital piracy negatively impacts the entire distribution network, from the product creator, to the distributor, all the way to the consumer. Service providers and content owners have numerous solutions available that they can employ to mitigate and reduce the level of digital piracy.

With competition heating up between legitimate content providers, content owners and service providers alike should not forget to remain vigilant. The fight against digital piracy is at least one battleground where they should be united.<>

How can you build a more secure content distribution system?

Cartesian helps businesses worldwide seeking to establish a secure environment for content distribution. We work with leading broadcasters around the world and the Hollywood studios on content security issues. From training to implementation, review and audit, to monitoring of systems and services, we offer a complete solution for content owners, Pay TV operators and security technology providers.

> Learn more about our content security services


[i] Gonzalez, O. (2019, June). Digital video piracy costs movie and TV industry at least $29 billion a year, study says. Retrieved from CNET:

[ii] Sandvine. (2018, October). The Global Internet Phenomena Report. Retrieved from Sandvine:

[iii] Cambridge University Press. (2011, November). Digital Piracy. Retrieved from Cambridge Dictionary:

[iv] Perez, S. (2019, February). Netflix may be losing $192M per month from piracy, cord cutting study claims. Retrieved from Tech Crunch:

[v] Lee, B. (2016, March). Hannibal season 4 ‘didn’t happen because of illegal downloads’. Retrieved from Digital Spy:

[vi] Kennedy, M. (2016, March). Hannibal Producer Blames Online Piracy for Show’s Cancellation. Retrieved from Screen Rant :

[vii] Kraft, A. (2015, December). A third of pirated movie sites spread malicious software, report says. Retrieved from CBS News:

[viii] Lim, B. (2018, May). Beware, digital pirates. Retrieved from New Straight Times:


[x] Writing, A. (2017, June). Legal Penalties for Software Piracy. Retrieved from Legal Beagle:

[xi] Impey, S. (2019, March). Premier League probe shuts down international piracy ring. Retrieved from Sports Pro Media: