Netflix helps reform hard-core movie pirates, but at a cost

Now that easy-to-use streaming services like Netflix are available at low prices, some viewers are losing the urge to illegally download copyrighted movies and television shows. But many reformed pirates are still bending company rules by accessing programs restricted to other countries.

Netflix viewing is up, piracy is down, but not every subscriber is playing by the rules

Pirates used to download movies regularly, but now that streaming services are available at low prices, some viewers are losing the urge to illegally download copyrighted movies and television shows. (Peter Mountain/Disney/Associated Press)

​Netflix and the online video streaming craze are taking a bite out of online piracy.

Now that easy-to-use streaming services are available at low prices, some viewers are losing the urge to illegally download copyrighted movies and television shows.

But it's not always a squeaky clean transition. Many reformed content pirates are still bending company rules by accessing programs restricted to other countries.

Streaming vs. BitTorrent

Netflix and other streaming services have grown and BitTorrent has declined— Dan Deeth, Sandvine

A recent study by a Waterloo, Ont., tech company shows a preference for legal streaming over piracy. 

"People are shifting their activities and they've certainly embraced streaming video," says Dan Deeth with Sandvine, a broadband equipment company that tracks home internet usage.

According to its latest 2014 report, over a one-month period, Netflix alone accounted for almost 35 per cent of all downloading data traffic during peak hours in North America. That's up from 32.7 per cent in 2011. 

Meanwhile, BitTorrent, a file-sharing tool often used for pirating content, accounted for just 2.8 per cent of the same traffic, a significant drop from 7.6 per cent in 2011.

"When we talk about internet share, Netflix and other streaming services have grown and BitTorrent has declined. And that just speaks to the availability of these services and their ease of use, and the price point is often right," says Deeth. Netflix Canada packages start at $7.99 a month

Reformed pirate

Torontonian Sean Whitehead says streaming services have cured his illegal downloading ways.

He cut his cable five years ago because he felt he was paying too much money for too little original content.
Some illegal downloaders are mending their ways, but others are still breaking cross-border rules to get access to all the shows they want. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

"I only want to pay when there's new stuff, and I'm happy to pay for that. But if I can't legally pay for it in this country, I'll find ways," says Whitehead.

So he turned to piracy. Although it's free, downloading illegal content can be cumbersome. Sometimes it takes endless hours only to wind up with a show with out-of-sync audio, stilted video or worse.

"You never know what you're downloading," says Whitehead. "If you don't know what you're doing, you can infect your computer with some sort of virus."

As well, it's against the law and there's always the risk of getting caught.

So when Netflix Canada launched about six months later, Whitehead gave up piracy. He was content to pay a fraction of his traditional cable bill to legally stream shows instead.

"Once you gain access to it, you think, well this is even easier than downloading. It's like having a giant PVR that records everything for you. You're picking what you want to watch and you hit play and it's there," he says.

Something's still not quite right

Although it's not offering any statistics, Netflix is quick to take credit for helping curb illegal downloading.  

"There's been a notable reduction in piracy in countries where we operate such as the U.S. and Canada," company spokeswoman Marlee Tart told CBC News in an email. "Ultimately people steal content because they can't get it otherwise."

But Netflix failed to mention that some subscribers break its company policy when they don't get everything they want by accessing content restricted to other countries.

As with many streaming companies, cross-border watching violates Netflix's policy, because content licensing agreements vary between countries.

"It's all really a sticky subject," says Sandvine's Deeth. "You've got these complex business relationships between content producers and content owners and streamers that the average subscriber has no insight into."

Whitehead says that what he likes about Netflix is the wide variety of shows he can access by using an unblocking service to break the virtual borders created by streaming companies.

"Netflix U.K. is a treasure trove of BBC content," explains Whitehead. "Netflix Mexico seems to get [American] movie releases sooner than Netflix U.S."

HBO threatens

He also subscribes to HBO's American-only streaming service, which includes the popular show, Game of Thrones.

The network's fantasy hit is continually cited as the most illegally downloaded series. This year, the network launched its own $14.99 US a month streaming service, HBO Now, shortly before airing the new season of Game of Thrones.

But if HBO wanted to stem the tide on illegal downloading, its next move may not help. It recently sent emails to some foreign subscribers accessing its American-only service, threatening to cut them off.

It ignited fury in a discussion thread on the popular news website Reddit, where people threatened to return to piracy.

"A master class in how to turn a paying customer into a pirate," wrote one person. Another commented, "If they won't give it to us at a price, we will just take it for free."

Whitehead hasn't received a warning from HBO, but says if it ever did cut him off, he may consider illegally downloading Game of Thrones.

"Especially in this country, I think there's a minimal amount of choice, and I want choice," he says.

Although piracy may be in decline, it appears many viewers willing to pay for content will continue to break the rules until they get what they really want: television without borders.


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won at Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact:


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