Online Piracy Spikes Amid Coronavirus Lockdown: Study

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Visits to piracy sites in the U.S. were up more than 40 percent in the last week of March.

New data from digital piracy analysts Muso shows traffic on piracy sites jumped more than 40 percent following stay-at-home orders in the U.S. and U.K.

Lockdown and stay-at-home orders due to the novel coronavirus have been a big boost for online pirates, with a new study showing double-digit growth in digital piracy across major territories in Europe and North America.

The data, published Monday by London-based piracy analysts Muso, shows visits to illegal film streaming and download sites shot up by 41.4 percent in the United States and by 42.5 percent in the U.K. in the last seven days of March, compared with the last seven days of February.

Muso saw a similar pattern across Europe, with visits to film piracy sites up 66 percent in Italy, 50.4 percent in Spain and up 35.5 percent in Germany over the same period.

The piracy spikes roughly correspond to COVID-19 lockdown orders introduced in various territories. Germany issued stay-at-home orders March 22. The U.K. followed suite March 23. In the U.S., different states introduced different measures at different times but by March 31, around three-quarters of the U.S. population was under some form of lockdown or quarantine. Italy, which imposed a strict national lockdown Feb. 22, and Spain, which followed suit March 14, have been under stay-at-home orders longer than the rest of Europe or the U.S. It is not clear if that is a factor in the higher piracy figures noted in those two countries. Both countries have traditionally had higher rates of piracy than those seen in northern Europe.

Muso said its figures showed "an unprecedented increase" in visits to online film piracy sites in the last week of March, a jump the group attributed to self-isolation measures. "As more countries enforced lockdown and required citizens to self-isolate, demand for content via piracy grew exponentially," Muso said.

The piracy spike appears to match the increase in demand for legal online subscription services during the COVID-19 lockdown. Last week, Netflix published figures showing it had added a record 15.8 million subscribers during the first quarter of this year, something the company attributed in part to enforced home confinement.

"Piracy or unlicensed consumption trends are closely linked to paid-for or licensed content," says Andy Chatterley, CEO of Muso. "So, just as Netflix has seen large subscriber gains, we have seen a significant spike in visits to film piracy sites."

A closer look at Muso's data reveals some interesting differences, however, between the behavior of pirates and legal streamers. In every country noted in the study, visits to TV piracy sites dwarf those to film piracy sites. In the U.S., Muso recorded 601.3 million total visits to TV piracy sites in the last week of March, compared with 137.4 million total visits to film piracy sites. But TV piracy visits have increased only slightly — up 8.7 percent in the U.S. in the period studied — compared with the 41.4 percent jump seen in film piracy visits.

Part of this discrepancy could be attributed to the lack of live TV sports available on piracy sites — virtually all live sports have been suspended or canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic — but it could also point to a difference in demand. Alongside legal streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime, traditional broadcasters and cable operators continue to provide TV content during the various national lockdowns. Cinemas, however, have been shut down worldwide and recent theatrical releases are not as widely available on subscription sites.