Hardcore UK Pirates Dwindle But Illegal Streaming Poses New Threat

The Intellectual Property Office reports that while UK infringement levels are stable, new threats are challenging progress. Around seven million people are consuming some level of copyright infringing content, but illicit streaming and stream-ripping are increasing in popularity. Interestingly, however, the number of consumers accessing exclusively free content is at an all time low.

For as many years as ‘pirate’ services have been online it has been clear that licensed services need to aggressively compete to stay in the game.

Both the music and movie industries were initially slow to get off the mark but in recent years the position has changed. Licensed services such as Spotify and Netflix are now household names and doing well, even among people who have traditionally consumed illicit content.

This continuing trend was highlighted again this morning in a press release by the UK’s Intellectual Property Office. In a fairly upbeat tone, the IPO notes that innovative streaming models offered by both Netflix and Spotify are helping to keep online infringement stable in the UK.

“The Online Copyright Infringement (OCI) Tracker, commissioned by the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO), has revealed that 15 per cent of UK internet users, approximately 7 million people, either stream or download material that infringes copyright,” the IPO reports.

The full tracking report, which is now on its 7th wave, is yet to be released but the government has teased a few interesting stats. While the 7 million infringer number is mostly unchanged from last year, the mix of hardcore (only use infringing sources) and casual infringers (also use legal sources) has changed.

“Consumers accessing exclusively free content is at an all-time low,” the IPO reveals, noting that legitimate streaming is also on the up, with Spotify increasing its userbase by 7% since 2016.

But despite the positive signs, the government says that there are concerns surrounding illicit streaming, both of music and video content. Unsurprisingly, ‘pirate’ set-top boxes get a prominent mention and are labeled a threat to positive trends.

“Illicitly adapted set top boxes, which allow users to illegally stream premium TV content such as blockbuster movies, threaten to undermine recent progress. 13 per cent of online infringers are using streaming boxes that can be easily adapted to stream illicit content,” the IPO says.

Again, since the report hasn’t yet been published, there are currently no additional details to be examined. However, the “boxes that can be easily adapted” comment could easily reference Amazon Firesticks, for example, that are currently being used for entirely legitimate means.

The IPO notes that an IPTV consultation is underway which may provide guidance on how the devices can be dealt with in the future. A government response is due to be published later in the summer.

Also heavily on the radar is a fairly steep reported increase in stream-ripping, which is the unlicensed downloading of music from streaming sources so that it can be kept on a user’s hard drive or device.

A separate report, commissioned by the IPO and PRS for Music, reveals that 15% of Internet users have stream-ripped in some way and the use of ripping services is on the up.

“The use of stream-ripping websites increased by 141.3% between 2014 and 2016,” the IPO notes.

“In a survey of over 9000 people, 57% of UK adults claimed to be aware of stream-ripping services. Those who claimed to have used a stream-ripping service were significantly more likely to be male and between the ages of 16 to 34 years.”

PRS goes into a little more detail, claiming that stream-ripping is now “the most prevalent and fastest growing form of music piracy in the UK.” The music licensing outfit claims that almost 70% of music-specific infringement is accounted for by stream-ripping.

The survey, carried out by INCOPRO and Kantar Media, looked at 80 stream-ripping services, which included apps, websites, browser plug-ins and other stand-alone software. Each supplied content from a range of sources including SoundCloud, Spotify and Deezer, but YouTube was found to be the most popular source, accounting for 75 of the 80 services.

There are several reported motivations for users to stream-rip but interestingly the number one reason involves what some people consider to be ‘honest’ piracy. A total of 31% of stream-rippers said that since they already own the music, and only use ripping services to obtain it in another format.

Just over a quarter (26%) said they wanted to listen to music while not connected to the Internet while 25% said that a permanent copy helps them while on the move. Around one in five people who stream-rip say that music is either unaffordable or overpriced.

“We hope that this research will provide the basis for a renewed and re-focused commitment to tackling online copyright infringement,” says Robert Ashcroft, Chief Executive, PRS for Music.

“The long term health of the UK’s cultural and creative sectors is in everyone’s best interests, including those of the digital service providers, and a co-ordinated industry and government approach to tackling stream ripping is essential.”

Ros Lynch, Copyright and IP Enforcement Director at the IPO, took the opportunity to praise the widespread use of legitimate platforms. However, he also noted that innovation also continues in piracy circles, with stream-ripping a prime example.

“It’s great that legal streaming sites continue to be a hugely popular choice for consumers. The success and popularity of these platforms show the importance of evolution and innovation in the entertainment industry,” Lynch said.

“Ironically it is innovation that also benefits those looking to undermine IP rights and benefit financially from copyright infringement. There has never been more choice or flexibility for consumers of TV and music, however illicit streaming devices and stream-ripping are threatening this progress.”

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