As streaming services raise prices and crack down on password sharing, one in three Americans say they’ve pirated TV or movies in the past year. 

Written By: Sam Blake | Published: April 23, 2024

The ongoing battle between services like Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, and Apple TV – sometimes called the streaming wars – has given viewers lots of entertainment options. Yet with pressure mounting on these services to show their investors that the costs of doing business are worthwhile, some have looked to boost profits by raising prices and making it harder for users to share passwords.

While some viewers may accept these changes and simply dig deeper into their wallets, might others be deterred and turn instead to piracy? To find out, we surveyed nearly 1,000 American adults about their consumption of pirated content, and dug into the details about their attitudes and behaviors regarding the illegal practice.

Key Findings

  • Over one-third of adults admit to pirating TV shows or movies in the past 12 months. Nearly 50% say they’ve done this at some point in their lives.
  • The younger people are, the more likely they are to have ever pirated content. Men aged 18-26 are the most likely to turn to piracy.
  • 11% of people who recently pirated content said they’re doing it even more frequently now compared to a year ago.
  • The cost of legal alternatives is a common reason given for pirating content. Nearly 75% of pirates say they would use streaming services if they were cheaper.
  • 11% of people who do not pirate content say they would do it if they only knew how.

1 in 3 American adults have pirated shows or movies in the past year

According to our new study, around one in three adults admitted to illegally accessing TV shows or movies in the past 12 months. This means they streamed TV or movies on unauthorized websites or illegally downloaded the content.

Almost half of American adults have pirated content at some point. Men are more likely to do so than women: 56 percent of men admitted to pirating TV shows or movies, compared to 43 percent of women.

The typical content pirate illegally streams or downloads two shows or movies per month. Given the number of hours the average American spends watching TV, this finding suggests that pirates tend to dabble in the practice but don’t do it to the total exclusion of legal viewing. Indeed, our research found that almost 80 percent of adults who pirated content in the last year also paid for two or more streaming services.

Findings also showed that younger people are likelier to pirate shows and movies than their elders. Seventy-six percent of Gen Z adults (born after 1997) say they’ve pirated at some point in their lives, as have 67 percent of Millennials (born 1981-1996). Fewer than half of the adults in the older generations say they’ve ever pirated TV or movies.

Percentage who've ever pirated movies or TV showsAs for whether pirating has become more common, 11 percent of people who’ve recently accessed illegal content said their pirating increased from the previous year. This trend will be worth keeping an eye on because of recent or upcoming changes in streaming services that could lead to more piracy. For instance, Disney Plus plans to enforce stricter measures against password-sharing starting this summer, and Amazon Prime Video's free tier has just started showing ads. Not to mention, price increases are always possible.

Compared to the previous year, have you accessed pirated TV shows or movies, more or lessWhich titles are the most popular among pirates? Oppenheimer, Poor Things, Road House, and Madame Web have consistently ranked among the most pirated movies this spring. Last year, The Last of Us was the most pirated TV show.

Why do people pirate content online?

Given that many people can access a wide variety of movies and TV shows for free through apps like Tubi, Freevee, and Hoopla, why are so many turning to piracy? We asked people who’d illegally accessed content to give us the answer.

Why do you pirate TV shows or movies? Percent of people who access content without authorization
I was only interested in a specific show or movie, which was not worth a full subscription. 36%
Subscription services are too expensive. 35%
The content was not available through official channels in my area. 31%
To avoid watching advertisements. 17%
I wanted to watch the content as soon as it was released, without waiting. 17%

The most-cited reason for pirating content was interest in watching one specific show or movie, and not wanting to pay the entire subscription price. Some services such as Prime Video offer a wide variety of single titles for rent, but many do not. Streaming services may be able to attract more users if they offered a rental model like Prime Video.

Streaming subscription cost was another oft-cited reason for pirating. Virtually all the streaming services have raised their prices over time. Netflix’s first streaming-only plan, launched in 2011, cost $8 per month; today, the standard monthly price is $15.49 (or $6.99 with ads, where available). Disney Plus rose from $6.99 per month at its launch in November 2019 to $13.99 by October 2023. It’s a similar story with Apple TV Plus, Hulu, and others.

More than three in ten people said a shortage of content through the legal channels in their area pushed them to piracy. This could include folks who still pay for cable, which generally has stricter limits on the amount of content it can provide compared to streaming. It also includes people who may want to view geographic-restricted content that is only available for streaming in certain countries.

Avoiding advertisements (17 percent ) and circumventing release delays (17 percent) rounded out the top reasons for pirating content. The impact of adding ads to streaming services on customer retention will likely be closely monitored as the services continue to refine their business model. Meanwhile, although movie theater-going has been in long-term decline, some mega-hits like Oppenheimer may still draw viewers into piracy.

How do people pirate TV shows and movies?

While we do not condone content pirating of any sort, our research revealed that pirates mainly rely on a mix of illegal streaming and downloading.

Methods Americans use to steal content Percent of American adults
I both download and stream shows/movies illegally 17%
I only use illegal streaming sites 13%
I only download content 10%
I view a friend/family member's pirated content 10%

How does illegal downloading actually work? You may have heard the terms “torrenting” and “peer-to-peer” (“P2P”) – these are key concepts for understanding what happens under the hood of content piracy.

Digital files like movies and TV shows are really big. If a large file is only available from one source – a single server – that source needs enough bandwidth to accommodate all the users who want to download the file. If the file is popular, this can lead to long, slow download times.

P2P solves this issue. Rather than storing the file in one centralized source, it’s broken into many pieces, which are stored across numerous “peers.” When users want to download the file, the request is sent to all of these decentralized sources, and the fragmented file gets put back together – voilá: you have your large file, fast.

The term “torrenting” stems from the P2P protocol BitTorrent, which was developed in 2001; one study found that in 2004 BitTorrent was responsible for one-third of all internet traffic. Today, even if it’s not done on BitTorrent, pirating from a P2P protocol is typically known as torrenting.

Torrenting is not illegal. You can use it to download huge files or data sets that are fair game for public use. When torrents are used to illegally access copyrighted material, they become tools for piracy – and because torrenting is particularly useful for large files, it makes a particularly useful tool for illegally accessing movies and TV shows.

Pirates also can use websites that illegally route streams to be consumed outside of sanctioned channels.

Reasons to avoid content piracy

Although the decentralized nature of P2P networks makes it difficult to enforce copyright infringement law, the consequences for distributing pirated content can be severe. Penalties can include prison time and fines of up to $250,000.

Due to the challenges of policing decentralized networks, legal authorities often will target what are known as “trackers,” which provide information on where to find P2P downloadable files. One such well-known case is the ongoing saga surrounding “Pirate Bay,” a Sweden-based tracker whose operators have received multimillion-dollar fines and prison sentences – though, as of today, the site is still operating.

About half of American adults have never pirated a TV show or movie, and legal risks are among the top reasons they give for avoiding the practice.

Other top reasons respondents gave for avoiding piracy included:

  • Ethical concerns – Copyright owners should be compensated for their work, some respondents noted. “It’s illegal and unfair to the content creators,” one respondent shared.
  • Supporting creators – It was important to many non-pirates to support the actors and actresses they enjoy and the other workers involved with the production of their favorite movies and shows.
  • Poor quality – Some respondents noted the risk that pirated content may have audio or visual issues, and thus it wasn’t worth it to them to view it.
  • Malware – It is difficult to reliably estimate how common it is for pirated content to carry malware like viruses, ransomware, and spyware but it does happen, and fears of these drawbacks are top of mind for many.
  • Personal morality and integrity – Some respondents who avoid piracy cited their moral code. “It’s just not the right thing to do,” said one. In fact, 23 percent of non-pirates say they’d think less of someone for pirating TV shows or movies.
  • Lack of knowledge of how to pirate – 11 percent of adults admitted they would watch unlicensed content if they knew where and how to find it.

Our respondents had several suggestions for reducing piracy. Many believed making more content available, and for cheaper, would help. Some pointed to reducing geographic restrictions. Others suggested implementing stronger penalties and enhancing technological measures to prevent unauthorized sharing. According to some respondents, raising awareness about the consequences and harms of piracy could also help reduce the practice. So, too, could improving the quality of streaming services, such as better usability or fewer ads. Finally, addressing broader issues like income inequality was also mentioned as a possible path forward.

Our data

In March 2023, conducted an online poll of 988 American adults. The respondents were representative of the U.S. population regarding their genders, ethnicities, and ages.