When Piracy is Easy, How Do You Compete?

Popcorn Time is something that I’ve been hearing about for a while now but I’ve never really looked into. Effectively it’s a tool that gives you an easy to use User Interface to find Torrents for your favorite TV shows and movies. Torrents, by the way are a type of file and download methodology. Effectively you get tiny bits and pieces from a large number of different users across the internet. This makes it harder to track the individual files, prevents it from easily being removed from the web, and helps manage internet usage across the multiple users. In the days of Kazaa, you directly downloaded from a single peer, now you’re downloading from multiple users, so if one goes offline or reduces the bandwidth they are sending the file to you it has minimal impact.

Torrents are what’s called “piracy” and are on the pirate bay and any number of other sites that share those files. Since they do not have to follow strict contracting like Netflix, Comcast, Hulu, HBO, and other streaming services you have access to the movies you want whenever you want them. For instance, Netflix recently lost access to the Avengers, probably because of the cost of keeping in their library and Disney trying to create artificial scarcity of the legal product. You can find extremely high quality torrents out there to watch it if you can’t get it for free. In fact I’m sure it’s on Popcorn Time right now.

Because of these difference and the historic complexity and risks of downloading a torrent, Netflix had positioned itself as a way to prevent piracy. Now this might not be the case, as Netflix is beginning to see Popcorn Time as a legitimate threat to their business model. I’m not surprised that Netflix sees risk here and I think that this is a good thing for Netflix. It means they are expecting their business to be disrupted and that they can take proactive steps to address it.

What can they do to keep their business afloat and continue to fight piracy? Well, since they are essentially seen as a cash cow on two fronts – ISPs and Content producers (MPAA and TV companies), they need to clearly articulate the amount of piracy that was reduced once the content was put onto Netflix and then show the increase in piracy after the content was pulled from Netflix for contractual reason. If Netflix can’t afford to keep it on their network, then with an easy to use app like Popcorn Time, the content will be pirated, which means that any revenue artificial scarcity was hoping to drive or to be extracted from Netflix at an elevated price goes out the window and the content will still be consumed.

In some cases piracy will happen regardless, but if the trend continues were people are switching back and forth between cord cutting and going back to cable because of rising costs of apps, then apps like Popcorn Time will become more popular because they can completely replace Hulu, Amazon Prime Videos, HBO Go, Netflix, etc.. You could be a cord cutter with this and pay for one app to get your live sports and be good to go. Content producers will begin to lose out again, because they are trying to squeeze the companies that provide easy, relatively cheap access to their content. I’d rather not go back to that, but if my costs keep rising because the companies I choose to support can’t afford the content that I want, then I’d have no choice.

Continual disruption – still happening in TV and content

One of my favorite things to read about is innovation. For those of you that know me, that’s not really a surprise. However, I think that there’s a lot of misunderstanding out there about what “disruptive” innovation is. Most people think that apps that modify the way you do something is disruptive. For example, people have said that companies like Kayak and Hipmunk are both disruptors of booking travel. However, the true disruption came from travelocity or orbitz, whichever came first. These sites really did change the way the game was played for booking travel because they essentially cut out both the middleman (travel agents) and the airlines involvement in book flights. Anything beyond that has simply been sustaining innovations. These are innovations that are quickly co-opted by the existing incumbents as it’s possible for them to do that. A more disruptive technology for travel would view the process holistically from the moment you booked the trip to the time to returned home from your completed vacation. The site would need to account for getting you to your destination without any sort of delays. In James Womack’s book Lean Thinking, they point out the “value add” activity of a flight was only 3 hours, while the total waiting time was over 12 and they didn’t include the effort it took to book the trip back in 1995. All inclusive it’s likely to be much worse now. Especially the way that airlines measure “on time departure” (leaving the gate on time) which is different than our “on time departure” (taking off on time).

In a true disruptive situation you’ll typically see the incumbents resorting to changing laws to keep their supremacy of the markets, we don’t see this in travel at all. Where we do see this is in telecom and cable. The image below from Mashable pretty well explains why this is happening.

There’s likely overlap between users of Netflix, Prime, and Hulu, but if I was cable TV I’d be running scared. I also would love to see this graphic if you add Twitch.tv and specifically ESPN. I think eventually twitch will be disrupting ESPN and the traditional sports networks out there.

How are the cable companies using legal and technical mechanism to limit access to content on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Twitch? First, the movie industries have absurd agreements with cable companies (providers) giving their services, like Xfinity from Comcast first access to content. In many cases this will translate into something earlier on the subsidiaries of those in terms of networks. Second, cable providers use their control over the network to throttle the internet speeds of these internet services. This is leading them to try to change the laws around net neutrality so that the cable providers don’t just become “dumb pipes” that content is passed through but the users don’t interact with.

I believe this also indicates that both cable networks and internet providers are being disrupted in a way that they don’t understand. They are using every tool they have at their disposal to fight against the adoption of these services, but they don’t understand what’s happening. Consumers have hired comcast, verizon, and others to provide them a solid consistent connection to whatever content the user wants. Internet providers are trying to force themselves into a middleman role that the users don’t want. When opportunities arise that will allow the user to experience content on their own terms. It’s clear that cable TV is losing the fight and this will only accelerate as people purchase more tablets and devices like that. Chromecast (which allows people to display things from a laptop/tablet on their TV) is another disruption that Google is providing, Amazon has something similar for their Tablets (which will increase Prime usage by the way). The TV companies are losing and need to figure out new business models to stay afloat. This is where disruption is happening. Not in other spaces.