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Indians ranked third in the world in accessing piracy websites in 2021, with 6.5 billion visits driven in part by lockdown-induced stay-at-home norms and the digital pivot.

The US is number one and Russia ranked second, according to a report by Akamai Technologies, a cybersecurity and cloud service company.

India was the top source of traffic for websites showing pirated films, and also ranked number one in music piracy. The figures may be an underestimation—media experts said digital penetration has made piracy harder to track and control, especially when websites operate outside Indian jurisdiction.

Platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram have made it easier to circulate films and songs, and websites often make minor changes in URLs to take different avatars when reported or blocked. However, unlike many other countries, there is no provision to claim damages for pirated content in India.

According to the report titled ‘Piracy in the Outfield,’ the global piracy demand reached 3.7 billion between January and September 2021. A majority of consumers (61.5%) are directly accessing pirated materials, while 28.6% of them are searching for them. The US and Russia are the top locations for piracy visits at 13.5 billion and 7.2 billion respectively. Top pirated films during the year include monster film Godzilla vs Kong, Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Marvel’s superhero film Black Widow, while the list of top pirated shows is led by the first seasons of Loki and Wanda Vision.

“Piracy in India has been a problem for decades, with movies, television and music being the top source of entertainment in the country. Illegal downloads of movies before they have theatrical release has been a common form of piracy. With the ongoing pandemic and radical shift to OTTs, piracy has only provided illicit and easy access to valuable content. Piracy is a growing problem, with an overall 16% increase from the previous nine-month period," Sidharth Pisharoti, regional vice-president, India and South Asia, Akamai Technologies said.

Digital pirates have profited from consumer demand to view content from home, along with rising Internet consumption and easy access at low costs, he added.

Piracy is more rampant in India than developed markets because of delayed release of premium content here, leading to consumers accessing them through unauthorised sources, said Tanu Banerjee, partner at legal firm Khaitan & Co.

“Inability to afford the fees charged for access also pushes consumers in India to watch pirated content. Besides, generally there’s a lack of awareness among consumers regarding copyright," Banerjee said.

According to MUSO, a data company with information on global piracy, online piracy rose 62% in India in March 2020, compared to February 2020, she added.

While the practice of recording films in theatres has lost popularity given the low quality of pirate content often with background noise, piracy in the online streaming world is now carried out either through broadcasts of live events being re-streamed illegally, or legitimate streaming websites being offered for free or at low costs through mirror URLs and websites, Banerjee said. “Pirates operating such services largely generate revenue through advertisements and by selling user information collected by them when users visit their sites. The top domains associated with music piracy are those that allow downloading or converting of other types of streaming media, most popularly YouTube videos into mp3 files," Banerjee said.

To be sure, filmmakers or television channels have often resorted to pre-emptive ‘John Doe’ injunctions to combat piracy, Siddharth Mahajan, partner at legal firm Athena Legal said. John Doe is a legal remedy against unknown people for those cases where the infringer is unknown or not traceable or if infringement is anticipated but hasn’t been found yet. “These websites can always be blocked by court orders but the challenge arises when they emerge in new avatars or if the player is not based in India at all," Mahajan said. Further, several platforms like Telegram and WhatsApp where pirated prints are circulated, claim they are protected by end-to-end encryption and cannot disclose information on users, Mahajan added.

Ranjana Adhikari, partner, media, entertainment and gaming with the TMT Practice group of IndusLaw said the general perception among users of pirated content that piracy is a “victimless" crime primarily fuels this activity. “Users of pirated content feel that the creator will anyway be sufficiently remunerated through other legal channels and by those who pay for the content so a few illegal downloads will not harm anyone. Also, most litigation in India by copyright owners are directed towards platforms that facilitate access and exchange of pirated content and there are hardly any instances of action having been initiated against consumers and disseminators of the pirated content on these platforms," Adhikari said.

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