Netflix studies piracy sites to decide what to buy

By Leo Kelion
Technology reporter

Image caption, Netflix says it monitors which shows are most popular with internet pirates

Netflix has revealed that it tracks piracy sites to help decide which TV series and films it should add to its online streaming service.

The US firm gave Prison Break as an example of one programme it had bought as a consequence of using the strategy.

Media companies have traditionally seen copyright infringement as a threat to their business.

However, some programme-makers acknowledge there can be benefits.

Netflix's vice president of content acquisition disclosed its use of the technique to Tweakers, a Dutch news site covering the firm's launch in the Netherlands.

"With the purchase of series, we look at what does well on piracy sites," said Kelly Merryman.

"Prison Break is exceptionally popular on piracy sites.

"But there are many programmes that we will not buy, such as The Voice. Such live programmes are better suited for live TV."

Netflix's chief executive, Reed Hastings, had previously told the site that he believed his video-on-demand product might discourage people from using BitTorrent piracy sites because it was easier to use.

Image caption, Prison Break made a star out of Oxfordshire-born actor Wentworth Miller

However, he admitted that it would not dissuade everyone.

"In Canada BitTorrent is down by 50% since Netflix launched three years ago," he said. "But there's still a lot of people who torrent."

Word of mouth

The comments come a fortnight after the creator of the US series Breaking Bad said that piracy had helped his show survive, allowing it to find an audience after "very low viewership" of legal broadcasts of its first episodes.

"Piracy is certainly a double-edged sword," Vince Gilligan told entertainment news site Digital Spy.

"It does disincentivise companies from making their products if they feel they can't earn an honest living off of them, but on the other hand there was an upside to the piracy, because it got the word out in regards to Breaking Bad."

The chief executive of US media firm Time Warner also recently signalled that piracy may have worked in the favour of its HBO show, Game of Thrones.

Image caption, Games of Thrones is not available via Netflix, but can be viewed via Tesco's Blinkbox service

"It's a tremendous word-of-mouth thing," he said in answer to a question about the subject by a bank analyst.

"Basically we've been dealing with this issue for years at HBO, where, literally... people have always been running wires down the back of apartment buildings and sharing with their neighbours.

"Our experience is, it all leads to more penetration, more paying [subscriptions] and more health for HBO, less reliance on having to do paid advertising.

"I think you're right, that Game of Thrones is the most pirated show in the world. Now that's better than an Emmy."

However, not everyone is so relaxed about the idea.

"Seemingly innocent viewing of TV shows via pirate websites can have consequences," Eddy Leviten, a spokesman for the Federation Against Copyright Theft (Fact) told the BBC.

"The more people who watch via illegal means, the less likely it is for a UK broadcaster to buy the show which in turn reduces the revenues for the programme makers.

"This makes it harder to justify further investment in exciting new shows or the next series of hit shows and will ultimately reduce the choice available to viewers worldwide."

Emmy Awards

Image caption, House of Cards helped Netflix secure a total of 14 Emmy nominations this year

Netflix itself has begun to invest in its own original content.

On Sunday it won two Emmy awards for its political thriller House of Cards - Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series and Outstanding Cinematography for a Single Camera Series.

It was the first time the US Academy of Television Arts and Sciences had given an online series such a prize.

The programme has also been nominated for further Emmys to be announced at an award ceremony on 22 September.

Netflix has previously said it had taken measures to combat piracy of the show.

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