Netflix streaming is killing piracy.

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July 26 2011 5:15 PM

How Netflix Is Killing Piracy

It's convenient, it's not that expensive, and the selection is just good enough.

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You could argue that Hollywood can still screw this up. A few weeks ago in Slate, Bill Wyman pointed to how complicated it's become, these days, to find something you like on one of the many legal streaming services that are now available. Wyman ran into repeated hurdles while searching for episodes of The Office, and he notes that this "frustrating and pointless process can be repeated with any TV show you wish, or any group of director's films or any genre. Some parts of it are available here under these circumstances, some are available there under those. Some in this place, some in that, and some not at all. And the availability can change without notice."

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The crux of Wyman's argument is that the movie world is going down the illogical path of the music industry—instead of creating a great alternative to the illegal mechanisms by which people consume media, it's trying to scold fans into compliance. As Wyman noted, the big entertainment companies just signed a deal with the nation's major Internet providers to go after major file traders. Under the agreement, ISPs would police their networks and send habitual traders up to six warnings. Repeat offenders may be punished with reduced Internet speeds, redirection from file-trading sites, or a requirement that they review information about the ills of piracy. The ISPs won't be required to disconnect people, though.

Where Wyman sees hints of the RIAA's backwards policies of yore, I see progress. The six-strike rule is a retreat from the entertainment industry's earlier, more aggressive stance. Although some studios are still trying to sue downloaders, the new deal—in which only the worst offenders are targeted, and punishment is relatively gentle—suggests that more pragmatic forces have taken hold. What's more, everyone in the industry is aggressively pursuing digital deals—the first four seasons of Mad Men, for example, will be available for streaming on Netflix starting this Wednesday—which is pretty strong evidence that they don't expect to return to the pre-digital era (which is what the music industry did expect in about 2001). The only fights now are over money, and as firms like Netflix get more subscribers and studios get more desperate as traditional revenue channels dry up, we'll see more deals to get better titles online. Things aren't perfect now, but they're getting better, not worse.

I also disagree with Wyman about the relative convenience of legal streaming versus illegal downloading. Sure, if you're looking for a specific movie or TV show, it can be tough to find it legally online. But if you're just looking to watch something, streaming services are much more convenient than file-sharing networks. I'm an expert torrenter, but I still find the process tedious. You have to search for a copy of whatever show you want to watch, wait for it to download, transfer it or convert it to a format that will play on your television, and then, as you watch, brace for the possibility that it will look or sound awful. I admit that sometimes I brave these waters; the other day I downloaded a recent episode of True Blood. But while it was downloading, my wife and I found My Cousin Vinny on Netflix and had a great time rewatching that. I still haven't touched the pilfered HBO show.

It could be that I'm just not that picky. For me, Netflix's streaming service demonstrates that instant access to something less-than-ideal trumps less-than-instant access to something ideal. Wyman seems like he's the opposite type of viewer, and I'm sure there are others out there like him. But I suspect more people are like me. When you sit down to watch TV, you don't want to do a lot of work. Piracy requires work. Netflix doesn't.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.