Viewers prefer file-sharing

September 4, 2008 // 12:12 p.m.

Tags: #bittorrent #file-sharing #filesharing

It's no surprise that people will download things from dodgy BitTorrent trackers if they can't get it free elsewhere – but it's perhaps a little shocking that they'll do so even if they can.

That's the interesting revelation that Wired's Betsy Schiffman has come up with: people will pirate even if there's a legal, free alternative.

Citing figures from pro-filesharing site TorrentFreak, Schiffman states that almost a million people downloaded illegitimate copies of the first episode of the new Prison Break series in the twenty-four hours after it aired on the US Fox TV network. This, in itself, isn't surprising – although the sheer number, representing a figure of around one-sixth as many as actually tuned in to watch the broadcast. What you may find surprising is that they didn't have to: both Fox's own website and commercial video streaming site had the episode available for immediate, free viewing – albiet with a few adverts.

So, with legal options in place – and that won't have you waiting for that knock at the door from the filesharing police – why so many downloads? I'm sure for some it's a convenience thing – it's one thing to be able to watch a badly encoded Flash video streamed via your web-browser, and quite another to download a top-quality MKV file and watch it on your big-screen TV. Some will have just been looking to avoid the adverts – no matter how few or how subtle, some people object strongly to advertising as a valid method of funding a production. Perhaps the biggest reason, however, is that – to put it in Schiffman's words - “file sharing is [a] hard habit to break.”

In other words, once a person gets used to downloading rips of popular TV programs from sources such as BitTorrent and binary newsgroups, they stop looking for a legitimate source. They have a solution, it works, why go elsewhere?

This impetus towards piracy is, largely, something the content producers are largely responsible for: it's been clear for years now that consumers want high-quality, convenient, DRM-free downloads. As the industries involved – film, music, and television – have been traditionally reluctant to allow this to happen, the consumers have switched to alternative sources legal or otherwise. Convincing people to switch back is going to be a lot harder than providing them with what they wanted in the first place.

The figures might not lie – a sixth of the 'legitimate' audience is certainly not to be sniffed at – but it is worth mentioning that the one million downloads were worldwide. Another common reason for an individual to download a popular TV show is the tendency to air a given show in the US months ahead of other countries; downloading a ripped copy allows a Lithuanian Prison Break fan to get his fix far earlier than via legitimate sources.

But, where to for the industry? Having allowed the filesharing sites to flourish – and give the consumers a taste of what digital media could be like – it's going to be a hard slog to fix the legitimate distribution channels.

Do you download TV shows in preference to watching them live, and if so why? Share your thoughts over in the forums.