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Subscription Services Are Killing Piracy – And Consumer Choice

by Gavin Steven

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Those familiar with Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), will know that the show has a strange relationship with the law. Initially broadcast on KTMA, a struggling Minnesotan channel best known for its daytime reruns of Laurel and Hardy and late-night screenings of softcore pornography, the show starred a man and three robots, doomed to forever float through space and joke over forgotten B movies. Thanks to its sharp writing and timeless homemade aesthetic, the show quickly gathered a cult following, leading it to eventually become the flagship of HBO’s experimental new channel – which eventually became Comedy Central. While being an HBO channel, Comedy Central (then known as The Comedy Channel) initially had a limited distribution, meaning few states were able to actually watch the show on air. Despite this, the show quickly managed to become a national cult hit. The show achieved this by actively encouraging piracy: each episode’s final credits bore the mantra “Keep Circulating The Tapes", permitting fans to share their bootlegged tapes to friends and family. Today, MST3K fans now have access to a wealth of MST content via YouTube which, unlike other shows, are rarely taken down – some of them are even uploaded by MST themselves. Websites have sprung up to catalogue these links, meaning fans continue to circulate the tapes in their own way.


Sadly, fans of other shows are not so lucky – most television backlogs can only be found behind a paywall. For the fortunate, these exist as à la carte purchases on services such as iTunes or YouTube. However, for many shows, this means subscribing to one of the ever-growing list of streaming services. Previously, this basically meant getting a Netflix subscription – almost any show that was streaming was streaming on Netflix. However, as the list of streaming services grew, each service’s breadth of content shrunk. Netflix has Friends and Riverdale, Prime Video Seinfeld and Preacher. To have full access to all these shows, a viewer must subscribe to both services, and that’s just the start. If you want Sky content, you need Now TV, if you want Frozen (or Pixar, or Marvel, or Star Wars), you need Disney Life. Even music services such as Spotify and Apple Music, both of which market themselves as an all-in-one service, have gaps in their libraries. Dadrock-Gods King Crimson cannot be found on either Apple Music or Spotify, and until recently neither could up-and-comers The Beatles. This practise is also beginning to take hold in the video game industry. This generation, Microsoft have introduced Xbox Game Pass, which gives customers permanent access to many of Xbox’s exclusive titles, as well as a rotation of third-party games. Sony offer a monthly collection of video games to supplement their online subscription service. Nintendo are in the process of creating a service like Sony’s, instead offering a selection of classic games. For film and music, streaming services have almost monopolised the market and unless you’re willing to pay a hefty premium for Blu-Ray or vinyl, its really the only choice. If Microsoft’s heavy investments into Xbox Game Pass are anything to go by, it’s not unfeasible to imagine video games in the same position by the end of next generation.


Of course, there’s always piracy, right? Anybody with a VPN and a flexible set of morals can watch the latest episode of Family Guy in glorious 960×540. However, things are getting ever harder for sinners among us. As internet-based companies, sites like Netflix and Spotify are far more diligent than the companies fighting Napster and Limewire back in the day. They’re still locked in a permanent game of whack-a-mole with crafty download sites – but the suits are winning. Ever since the rise of Netflix, KickassTorrents, once a titan of the torrenting world, has been wiped from existence. The Pirate Bay, which survived through multiple legal battles in the early 2010s, has now been forced underground into various mirror sites, many of which gleefully spread malware. Even Popcorn Time, a lesser-known torrent streaming service, is in a permanent state of up and down. Nintendo have also been recently been clamping down on pirate websites, specifically those offering games from classic Nintendo consoles. Nintendo are likely doing this in preparation for their online service, which will include access to 20 NES games. This salvages only 20 games out of the 700 NES games that were removed, not mentioning games from other consoles. Gamers simply do not have access to the same amount of content that they used to. Even the Wii, with all its limitations, offered a healthy library of classic titles. Other games may never see the light of day again, at least on any legal platform. Some highly regarded games such as Disney’s Aladdin are too tied up in licenses to have any hope of re-release.


In the early days of streaming, audiences lauded the innovation, with the prevailing argument being that people would not pirate content if it is made easier to gain legally. Now, consumer choice is slipping, thanks to the exorbitant costs in subscribing to all the various streaming sites as well as the inaccessibility of many titles even with a subscription. All this is compounded by the increased difficulty in getting content through other means. MST3K, the show that once championed freedom of access, is now a Netflix original: it’s outro no longer bears the infamous mantra, “Keep Circulating The Tapes", and the most popular website dedicated to upholding that mantra can now only offer a Netflix link for its new series.

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