It must have seemed like a safe bet, as extortion plots go: Steal a prized original series from Netflix and shake the company down with the threat of releasing it months before it airs. But the sudden appearance of season five of Orange Is the New Black on torrenting site The Pirate Bay shows the crime was destined to failure, because the people behind it misunderstand how streaming, and the internet, work today.
A hacker or hackers using the moniker thedarkoverlord reportedly grabbed Orange—along with unaired shows from several outlets—from post-production company Larson Studios. When the thief or thieves held the show ransom and threatened to release it, Netflix refused to pay. And so it appeared on The Pirate Bay. This definitely isn’t ideal for Netflix, but it also wasn’t worth paying even one cent to prevent.
Islands in the Stream
Although the hack offers a reminder that even the best security can be undone by the so-called “weakest link”—Netflix can’t do much if a vendor is compromised—it provides a bigger lesson in how the internet has largely shifted away from torrenting. If a show lands on The Pirate Bay and nobody watches, did it really stream?
Consider that in 2011, BitTorrent accounted for 23 percent of daily internet traffic in North America, according to network-equipment company Sandvine. By last year, that number sat at under 5 percent. “There’s always going to be the floor of people that are always going to be torrenting,” says Sandvine spokesperson Dan Deeth. That group will surely enjoy whatever Piper’s up to in season five. But the idea that so small a cohort might prompt Netflix to negotiate with hackers seems absurd.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that a significant portion of the 98.75 million people who subscribe to Netflix do so only to watch Orange Is the New Black. (Doubtful, given that the show constitutes 10 of the 1,000 hours of original programming Netflix will release this year, but go with it for now.) The fact the hacker made it available a month or so early on a torrenting site still doesn’t amount to much of a threat.
“Are some people going to torrent it? They are,” says streaming media analyst Dan Rayburn of Frost & Sullivan. “But at the same time, a lot of people really don’t want to do that. If you’re really into a show, and you have a 50- or 70-inch TV, you’re going to want to watch it on that.”
It’s not that torrenting is so onerous. But compared to legitimate streaming, the process of downloading a torrenting client, finding a legit file, waiting for it to download, and watching it on a laptop (or mirroring it to a television) hardly seems worth it. Especially when a monthly subscription to Netflix or Amazon Video or HBO Now costs about as much as lunch. Yes, Game of Thrones provides what seems like an obvious counterpoint; hundreds of thousands of people torrent it every year, suggesting a healthy appetite for the practice. But it proves less instructive on closer examination.
“Even though you can get HBO Now in the US, in Canada and most of the world you would still need a premium television subscription,” Deeth says. Game of Thrones‘ torrenting popularity stems in part from the fact torrenting is the only way to watch it in many parts of the world. Netflix, on the other hand, is available in 200 countries. That speaks to another reason why plopping Orange Is the New Black online early didn’t pay off: The joy of binge-worthy TV hinges on knowing that other people also binge. A water cooler that only the Pirate Bay gathers around defeats the purpose.
“It’s not an experience,” says Rayburn. “People want to watch it with friends.”
Nipped in the Bud
Netflix doesn’t have much to say about the incident. “We are aware of the situation,” it said in a statement. “A production vendor used by several major TV studios had its security compromised and the appropriate law enforcement authorities are involved.” Brevity likely works best here. The fact is, nobody really knows how much the leak will hurt Netflix, in part because nobody knows how many people watch Orange Is the New Black. Besides, Netflix already sent the most important message it could, by not paying up.
If a show lands on the Pirate Bay and nobody watches, did it really stream?
The more hackers realize that threatening to release a show early won’t pay off, the less likely they are to do it. Hush money could embolden bad actors to try again, creating an ongoing problem. While this leak won’t make or break Netflix, it remains an inconvenience. The company clearly doesn’t want to encourage anything that threatens its subscriber base, however minimally. That’s especially essential in light ofthe company’s billion-dollar investment in homegrown movies and TV shows that only its subscribers will see.
“What they’ve realized is that they can put more of their money into original content, stop licensing older stuff, and have a smaller selection of content that’s higher quality that people will love Netflix for,” says Rayburn. “Down the line, that makes them more vulnerable to leaks.”
At a certain scale, maybe that has a material impact. It’s best to avoid encouraging more leaks to find out. In the meantime, though, Orange Is the New Black landing on torrent sites won’t make Netflix blue. As anyone in Litchfield Penitentiary lockup can tell you, crime doesn’t pay. At least not this kind.