Over the weekend, hackers calling themselves “thedarkoverlord” threatened to release the first 10 episodes of the fifth season of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” on the popular file sharing network Pirate Bay if they didn’t get a ransom payment.
Netflix opted to do nothing.
As threatened, the episodes were posted online, first one and then the other nine, more than a month ahead of their official June 9 release. But at the end of the day, the overwhelming reaction from the company and the public has been an indifferent shrug.
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The hacking group also claims to have 19 other shows, from Netflix as well as Fox, ABC, Nat Geo and IFC, but so far every network has reacted similarly to ransom threats, demonstrating among other things an evolving attitude toward cybercrime.
Not all hacks are created equally, and the danger of digital piracy just isn’t what it used to be.
First, just to clarify, the hackers in these cases didn’t steal the episodes from the streaming service itself but from Larson Studios, an audio post-production company that the affected networks were all using to put the finishing touches on their product. This is also not the first hacking/ransom attempt from thedarkoverlord. Last year, a small Indiana charity organization called Little Red Door Cancer Services of East Central Indiana was targeted. When they also refused to pay, their data was wiped. Last summer, the hackers also claimed to have breached several health care providers and threatened to sell the data on the dark web.
But if hackers can still devastate companies and consumers, the threat of leaking episodes doesn’t resonate the way it once would have. (On the other hand, the 2014 Sony hack shows hackers can still have a significant effect in the entertainment business).
Piracy has long been the great scare of the entertainment world. It undeniably had an impact on the music industry, but now, nearly 25 years after the debut of recordable CDs that allowed people to create “perfect copies” of albums, the industry and culture have changed in ways that make illegal downloads piracy largely unnecessary and unappealing for most consumers. In short, entertainment companies have finally embraced streaming.
Most viewers won’t have any interest in going through the technical hurdles and legal risks of getting a pirated show — one that’s also likely to have lower-quality video and sound — that will be officially released soon anyway. Video game piracy has basically been eliminated by cheap and easy services like Steam, while music services including iTunes, Pandora and Spotify gives users almost anything they want. The only advantage to piracy now is early access.
Video content is also a different animal than music. With some clear exceptions, most people don’t intend to view video content more than once, whereas an album or song is usually listened to countless times.
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The hackers also picked a less-than-optimal target. “Orange Is the New Black” has always been more concerned with character than plot. And though it is still very popular, most critics agree that it’s starting to lose steam as it enters its fifth season. Is anyone saying, “Well, I’m cancelling my Netflix subscription now that I’ve seen those 10 episodes of OITNB?” The leak isn’t likely to cost Netflix much, if anything.
Now, had the pilfered product been some hotly anticipated nerdbait like “The Last Jedi,” “The Defenders,” or season 7 of “Game of Thrones,” there’s a good chance that the reaction might have been more dramatic, perhaps even ending with thedarkoverlord getting their ransom money. Or maybe not. Leaked script synopses claiming to be the entire upcoming season of “Game of Thrones” have been available on Reddit for months, with little response from HBO. The show famously had the single biggest spoiler of the last decade hidden in plain sight (the novels were already out there) but still managed to produce the most shocking episode of television in recent memory. Increasingly, audiences realize that spoilers don’t really spoil anything. It’s the execution — no pun intended — that matters.
The social aspect also matters. What used to be called “water cooler talk” is now done on comment threads and Facebook. Those who watched the leaked episodes early might be ahead of the curve, but the conversation won’t start until June 9.
Ultimately, Netflix refused to pay the ransom for one simple reason. They knew what would happen when they didn’t: absolutely nothing.