War on TV piracy: Are cable companies fighting the right battle?

The cable companies are suiting up in their war on piracy. But in the digital age, where illegal copies of movies and TV shows abound online, a court battle or threatening letters may not do much to curb the problem.

Many pirates say they would stop — for the right price

In the digital age, how do you convince people who pirate to pay for content? (CBC)

Cable companies are suiting up in their war on piracy, tackling the problem in court or through threatening letters.

But when illegal copies of movies and TV shows abound online, the most effective crackdown may be to simply give pirates what they want — sort of.

That's according to some tech analysts who argue that many people steal content because they find the legal alternatives, such as pricey cable TV packages, unreasonable. So offer Canadians a selection of substantive, lower priced streaming services like Netflix, and many pirates will happily pay up.

"The evidence bears out: the more available and affordable options that are out there, people will go the legitimate route," says Meghan Sali of Vancouver-based consumer advocacy group OpenMedia.

Tech analyst Daniel Bader argues that threatening pirates is about as effective as spraying Raid on an insect infestation.

"More times than not, they hit some of it and they only hit the surface," says the senior editor with tech site Mobile Nations. "And it goes away for a little bit and then it comes back."

The Android box problem

On the surface, it appears the cable companies are winning at least one battle — the effort to crush the "free TV" Android box business.

The devices are loaded with technology that allows users to easily stream a huge selection of pirated content —  including live sports and news — for a one-time fee, typically around $100.

Bell Canada, Rogers Communications and Quebec's Videotron have taken legal action in Federal Court against at least 16 Canadian dealers.

They've already won a temporary injunction preventing the retailers from selling the devices until the case is resolved.

"This is a case of obvious piracy and the court made the right decision," Rogers told CBC News in an email shortly after the ruling last month.

But critics argue the injunction will do little to stop people from getting their hands on loaded boxes. The defendants in the case can still sell the devices without the offending software. And some dealers claim customers can easily download the software themselves.

Also, the pre-loaded Android box is still widely available in Canada.
A fully loaded Android TV box advertised on ebay for $43.24 US. It promises customers 'free movies, sports.' (eBay/eydeal)

Bader argues that even if the cable companies won a cross-Canada injunction, people could still buy the device from U.S. retailers.

"They're very easy to build, for very little money," he says. "The injunctions are not going to stamp out that sort of business."

Memo to pirates

Another approach to stamping out piracy is to send copyright infringement notices to suspected illegal downloaders.

During Game of Thrones' most recent run on HBO, the American network bombarded suspected Canadian pirates with letters. They contained the usual message that it's wrong to steal content and then added this tip: "It has never been easier to watch HBO programming legally in Canada."

Instead of convincing people to stop pirating, the letters sparked a backlash from many Thrones fans who claimed the show isn't easily available in Canada, at least not legally.

Bell Media owns the rights to HBO content in this country, and current Game of Thrones episodes are only available with an expensive top-tier cable subscription.

Bell told CBC News that while it doesn't send the letters, it "works closely with HBO."
Many Canadian Game of Thrones pirates argue it's not easy to legally access the show without a pricey cable subscription. (HBO Canada/Bell Media)

Thrones fan Josh Randall received a couple notices. He told CBC News last month that they won't stop him from illegally downloading the show.

The Corner Brook, N.L., resident said he's not a pirate at heart but just can't stomach a pricey cable subscription. "I don't want to pay for a bunch of channels and a bunch of stuff I'm never going to watch."

Instead, Randall's waiting for the day he can stream the show for a lower price. "I'd gladly pay," he says.

Bader says part of the problem is that Canadians know there are numerous streaming services in the U.S. that offer a bevy of content for a fee often cheaper than cable.

Americans can sign up for HBO Now for $14.99 US a month to stream Game of Thrones. The service isn't available in Canada.

"If HBO Now was offered in Canada, people would stop pirating HBO content," concludes Bader.

Bell told CBC News that piracy "is illegal and immoral and harms the creative community."

Show me the stats

So where's the proof that people would actually pay for content if you lowered the price?

A new British study found that the rise in streaming service subscriptions has coincided with a "small but significant" drop in piracy.

The annual study, commissioned by the U.K. government's Intellectual Property Office, surveyed more than 5,000 people about their online behaviour during the period of March to May 2016.

The survey found that for the first time, the number of people who only accessed legal content rose to 44 per cent, up three per cent since the same period in 2015.

Almost one quarter (24 per cent) of respondents said making legal services cheaper would encourage them to stop pirating.

To be continued

So why aren't cable companies clamouring to offer cheaper but substantive streaming services that would perhaps take a bite out of piracy?

Bell and Rogers both offer streaming options, but Bader says their limited libraries are created to complement, not replace, cable subscriptions.

The tech analyst adds that cable companies won't explore new business models until the old one starts losing money.

According to a new CRTC report, about 160,000 Canadians cancelled their TV subscription last year. But the industry offset that loss by charging remaining customers more.

But as more Canadians cut the cord and revenues potentially slide, perhaps reluctant pirates will eventually get the legal options they want.

"Over time, the companies will wake up and realize that this is the direction they need to move," says Bader.


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris covers business and consumer news. Contact:


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