Piracy Rates Spike For Popular TV Shows as CBS and Time Warner Do Battle

CBS and Time Warner have been engaged in a public battle over network access fees and the result has been a blackout in key markets that's left TWC customers unable to access certain CBS properties, including Showtime. These sorts of battles are ill-received by a public that's generally sick of paying an average of $84 a month to watch a handful of channels and now, thanks to a license dispute, finds itself unable to consume content that's been legally paid for. 

The predictable result? Skyrocketing piracy rates. According to data gathered by TorrentFreak, people in the affected markets of Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit and Pittsburgh, accounted for 14.6% of the downloads of the hit TV show "Under the Dome." The previous week, they accounted for just 10.9%. A 50% jump in piracy is particularly noteworthy when you consider that these figures are drawn from the total number of downloads in the US. In New York City, the relative piracy rate went from 1.3% of all US downloads to 3% in the wake of the blackout.

In The Long Run, Content Creators Lose:

The real problem with these kinds of blackouts is that it's difficult to even call it piracy. Backing up a music CD that you've purchased legally (provided that the copy is strictly for backup) is considered legal under fair use because you've paid for the content. What about downloading episodes of a television show you've paid for the privilege of seeing?

This is an area where the law and public perception are likely to conflict. If I pay Time Warner for a cable subscription, the expectation is that I've paid for access to the TV shows in question, which includes the right to record the shows and view them later. This is doubly true if I pay TWC for access to a subscription based channel like HBO or Showtime; I'm not just buying a bulk package, I'm paying for a particular product.

It's no wonder that consumers turn to piracy in such circumstances and the term itself may be a misnomer. The definition of piracy is taking something you don't legally have the right to access. In disputes like this, consumers have paid for the right but been denied access. The idea that CBS channels are a small portion of the total channels TimeWarner Cable provides isn't a satisfactory answer; television programs aren't fungible. If you love Under the Dome, Law and Order: SVU isn't an acceptable substitute.

But the company with more to lose here, in the long run, is CBS. The growth and relative decline of music piracy is proof that piracy exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000s precisely because there was virtually no way to legally acquire individual tracks or to play those tracks on a variety of digital devices. Before YouTube, before the iPod, before iTunes and the Amazon Music Store, the only way to get a small digital file you could move between computers was to illegally create and share one. It's easy to forget that the market for individual songs was moribund before the advent of digital distribution. Now, that's how most music is sold.

Punishing viewers for a contract dispute between two other parties is bad news for both companies, but it's worse for CBS, whose income stream is derived from the sale of such content. The longer this issue drags out, the more likely it is that people will become accustomed to tuning into Under the Dome via third-party download rather than on network TV at all.