Piracy’s dying: why we’re all going straight

Back in 2007, Steve Jobs wrote that digital rights-management systems “haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy”.

He was right, but something has worked. In the past year or so, traffic to the most notorious “dodgy” download sites – The Pirate Bay, KickassTorrents, ExtraTorrent – has nosedived.

The Pirate Bay, which started 2013 as the most popular torrent site on the web, and was rated as the 73rd most visited site in the world, has been forced to change its domain name for the sixth time within a year and now attracts less than a fifth of the traffic it was receiving in 2012.

“For the first time in well over a decade, 2014 may not be the year of the pirate,” says Dr David Price, director of piracy analysis at domain-registration firm NetNames.

For the first time in well over a decade, 2014 may not be the year of the pirate

So what is responsible for this swing away from piracy? Have people been won over by the DRM-free digital downloads that Jobs’ 2007 memo was cajoling the rights-holders into? Has the vast improvement in the availability and timeliness of TV shows on services such as Netflix curbed the temptation to fire up BitTorrent? Or is the decline in popularity down to the fact that ISPs have been forced to block access to the leading piracy sites?

Plummeting piracy

If piracy were a legitimate business, you’d be well advised to cash in your shares now, judging by traffic to the leading BitTorrent sites. Several sources have shown that traffic to some of the web’s most notorious destinations is dying more rapidly than characters in Game of Thrones.

In November 2013, bandwidth-management company Sandvine reported a 20% drop in US BitTorrent traffic over the previous six months, although European traffic continued to grow. The UK is showing a similar drop-off to America, according to figures collated by NetNames.

It has recorded the number of unique visitors to The Pirate Bay falling from five million in 2012 to only 900,000 at the end of 2013. KickassTorrents has seen a similar decline, after a court order forced Britain’s leading broadband providers to block access to the site in February 2013.

Of course, there are plenty of mirrors and proxies to the top torrent sites. A Google search for “Pirate Bay” actually returns a proxy site as the top result, above The Pirate Bay itself. Yet, even with such an easy path around the ISPs’ roadblocks, file-sharing traffic is in decline in the UK.

“Some users have found ways around the blocks,” says NetNames’ Dr Price. “A range of proxy sites are available, and some users have turned to VPNs to circumvent issues, but even when these are accounted for in the analysis, the number of visitors from the UK to major BitTorrent portals has dropped by around 10-20%.”

There’s no doubt that the leading torrent websites are suffering. Of the first five in TorrentFreak’s ten most popular torrent sites of 2013 – compiled at the beginning of the year based on their Alexa rank – The Pirate Bay is in free fall; had to repeatedly change domain names; Torrentz has seen a slight improvement in its Alexa ranking despite being blocked by British ISPs; isoHunt.com now carries a warning message saying it has been “permanently shut down” by a US federal court for copyright violation – although a clone site using the .to domain lives on; and ExtraTorrent has been blocked by British ISPs and seen its worldwide Alexa rank slip from 279 to 1,072.

(Update 24 March: it appears that the changes to TorrentFreak and ExtraTorrent’s Alexa rankings could be explained by the sites temporarily switching domains.)


Despite the wavering fortunes of those at the top of its list, TorrentFreak’s founder, Ernesto Van Der Sar, says that users are simply finding alternatives, as they always have done in the fast-moving world of file-sharing.

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