Homebound Australians substantially increased their consumption of illegally acquired online content during 2020, according to new government figures suggesting that piracy of video games and live sports was rampant as home workers and locked-down citizens looked for new entertainment to pass the time.

The 2,400 respondents to the latest Consumer Copyright Infringement Survey (CCIS) said they watched more movies, TV and live sport in 2020 than they did the year before, with TV particularly surging as locked-down residents passed time by binge-watching series on the couch.

Fully 31 per cent admitted illegally streaming live sports during the first three months of the pandemic – up from just 6 per cent in the 2019 survey.

Theft of video games was also up significantly, rebounding to 31 per cent of respondents after plunging to 20 per cent in 2019.

Consumption of music and movies, however, stayed at similar levels to the previous year – remaining well below a six-year average that had seen piracy steadily declining in the face of increased blocking.

Overall, 34 per cent of respondents to the survey said they had consumed some form of illegal content during the three-month survey period.

That was well ahead of the 23 per cent of UK citizens responding to a similar survey in that country, where locked-down residents watched less live sport and more movies.

Reversing the piracy decline

Efforts to impede access to pirate content sites have increased in recent years, with legislation enabling the blocking of hundreds of pirate sites and Google last September to closing a loophole that was allowing many sites to slip through its filters.

“If it is assumed that people who perceive a way of accessing content to be lawful would have few ethical barriers to using it,” the report notes, “this suggests many would just then follow the search results and access content.”

Government and industry efforts to reduce piracy have gained traction thanks to increasing availability of legal streaming options – ranging from TV and movie streaming services like Netflix, Stan, Binge and Disney+ and music services like Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music to gaming sites such as Steam, the Epic Games Store, and EA’s Origin.

With so many choices for legal content, many people who would have sourced content illegally seem to be less motivated to track down desired content than in the past.

Fully 59 per cent of would-be content infringers simply gave up when their efforts to locate content online were blocked – up from 44 per cent the year before.

Similarly, blocked users were less likely to look for alternative free, unlawful sources than in the past – with just 6 per cent doing so, compared to 16 per cent the year before.

Although fear of being caught and punished “was the least common reason to be concerned,” the report notes, “in the current environment, voluntary compliance is likely to be a greater level to lawful behaviours than enforcement and punishment.”

Streaming service providers have been working hard to nurture voluntary compliance by, for example, helping movie studios stream new-release films at the same time as their theatrical releases.

Apple, for its part, this month announcing that it would convert its entire stable of songs to a higher-quality lossless format that lets musicians offer higher-quality, immersive Spatial Audio surround sound.

By offering such features only through its site, Apple hopes to boost subscriber numbers amongst audiophiles to whom it has also targeted its high-end headphones.

Yet some have warned that the increasing quality of streaming video – which is regularly offered in 4K streaming quality unavailable to viewers through any other means – could actually work against movie and TV producers as first-run movies are increasingly offered for streaming online.

Widespread online streaming, observers have noted, will launch ‘the platinum age of piracy” by giving content pirates a high-quality video source that will be used to instantly stream new-release movies that might, in the past, have only been available as shaky, washed-out videocamera versions.