Your Pirated Content Could Cost You More Than Netflix

Torrents and free content are alive, well, and as dangerous as ever

Pirate with hook for a hand using a laptop to access The Pirate Bay

Lifewire / James Bascara

Most of us can remember the quaint recent history of content when gatekeepers had total control over articles, music, film, and video. The emergence of digital, files, and compression at the turn of the last century created a tear in the fabric of content control. Suddenly, everything was at risk.

We had free websites full of magazine content, Usenet and Binaries full of bizarre shareable clips (I think I got the first South Park clip this way), Napster and MP3s full of music, and palm-sized camcorders sucking pirated video off movie screens. It was a bonanza for the “content should be free” crowd and a disaster for pretty much everyone who created said content.

Laws, better DRM, broadband (and mobile broadband), and affordable access to vast libraries on content on services like Netflix, Spotify, and Pandora helped turn the tide and, miraculously, convince millions of consumers that paying for content is cool.

But like a black ship ghost ship sailing in the night, piracy glides on, an almost invisible leviathan, navigating rough waters to deliver its illicit goods.

[Content] Pirates are real.  The Pirate Movie - 20th Century Fox

Steady as She Goes

I haven’t thought much about Torrents or BitTorrent in years, wrongly assuming that our changing content consumption culture obviated the need to draw together millions of peer-to-peer connections for tiny bits of data that can be recompiled into a pirated versions of Gemini Man (as if you actually wanted to see that).

However, a look at some of Lifewire’s own analytics, which are often a fantastic mirror image of which tech questions people are asking on Google, reveals that Torrent technology is alive, well, and top-of-mind for hundreds of thousands of consumers. Our “Top Torrent Sites” article (which we keep fresh all year long) is one of our most popular stories. People want to know where to find sites like Pirate Bay and how to use them.

When I asked my Twitter audience anecdotally if they ever download pirated content, I was surprised at the response. 35% said “Yes,” 44% said, “Never,” but then another 21% admitted “I’m lying, yes.”

If you’re not buying my silly poll, take a look at a 2018 UK study, which found some 60% of consumers admit to at least streaming or downloading illegally shared content.

Danger, Iceberg Right Ahead

I’m not a fool; I realize that Torrent sites and BitTorrent clients that can recompile your often stolen content never went away, but I’m in agreement with what Brian Feldman wrote at The New Yorker last June: Content piracy isn’t just hanging on like a barnacle on the underside of a ship, it’s surging like a yacht in the America’s Cup. And the reason it’s surging: The vast changes in our streaming landscape.

The era of instant access to awesome content on one or two of your favorite streaming services or via cable’s on-demand is coming to a rapid end. As Feldman noted, content consumers are being forced back into uncomfortable and even costly choices:

“Everything is splintering,” wrote Feldman, pointing, as I have, that all the major content companies are taking their original content and going home … or at least to their own streaming platforms.

Content piracy isn’t just hanging on like a barnacle on the underside of a ship, it’s surging like a yacht in the America’s Cup

“Now if you want to both keep habitually rewatching The Office and keep up on, I dunno, The Crown, you’ll have to pay two subscription fees, instead of one," wrote Feldman.

It’s no wonder that a quick search of Pirate Bay brings up all nine seasons of The Office and, yes, both seasons of The Crown.

Torrent Services like Pirate Bay and Torrent Downloads stand a chance of becoming Netflix’s evil twins. They’ll be the only place where FriendsThe Office, and all the Star Wars movies live in harmony.

I guess, for some, that sounds awesome. It’s not.

Pirate Bay
Look familiar?.  Screenshot: The Pirate Bay

Illicit Goods

The one thing that hasn’t changed about Torrent technology in the last two decades is that much of the content on it is illegally sourced. The files for still-in theater films like Gemini Man and Joker were probably filmed in a movie theater with a handheld camcorder or even a smartphone, compressed on a laptop, and then uploaded.

Sometimes the files are stolen off studio servers by hackers who just can’t wait to go to the movies. TV shows might be recorded off a TV, ripped from, usually, a PC-based DVR, or from DVDs and Blu-Rays, and uploaded. Music is similarly ripped or rerecorded off streams and then uploaded for Torrenters.

If it isn’t clear already, none of this is supported or sanctioned by studios or content creators.

Granted, there are valid uses for Torrents, like access to hard-to-find or even discontinued code and files or public domain videos (like classic Charlie Chaplin clips).

As Rich Woods put it to me on Twitter:

“… there are shows that are only available pirated. For example, if I wanted to stream Dogma, or certain episodes of classic Doctor Who. On the other hand, I pay for content whenever possible if they'll take my money.”

Pirate flag
Sure, fly your pirate flag, but with caution.  The Pirate Movie - 20th Century Fox

Big Risks

Aside from the legal ramifications, Torrenting and content privacy comes with some other very real risks. Every Torrent service recommends up front that you run a Virtual Private Network (or VPN) before you Torrent because, otherwise, you’re sending your IP address to some potentially shady people.

In addition, there’s the possibility of downloading a big steaming pile of malware instead of that scary movie you were looking forward to watching tonight. Plus, if you run a BitTorrent client in the office, you could be opening up the entire network to attack.

So What

I think people who Torrent know all this, but they also don’t like being squeezed. As the streaming landscape breaks apart like a climate-change-stressed iceberg, forcing dozens of content and purchase decisions on us, Torrents may look like a stable patch of ice. They’re not.

So, go ahead, you pirates, enjoy yer’ content meals while you can. Just know that as media companies get serious and avaricious about who can and can’t have access to their content, they’ll eventually force your pirate ship ashore. Until then, may the seas be calm and your torrents be malware-free.

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