A word of advice to film and television execs frustrated by online video piracy: Stay away from superheroes.
Over the last six months, the hit graphic novel adaptation Watchmen and the popular NBC series Heroes ranked as the most often illegally downloaded movie and TV show, according to data tracked by peer-to-peer piracy research firm Big Champagne.
The simple lesson? Geeky young males--like many less piracy-capable viewers--don't necessarily like to pay for their entertainment. "I don't want to engage in too much stereotyping, but who are the people most actively helping themselves arm over arm to all this free video content?" asks Big Champagne Chief Executive Eric Garland. "They're going to be geek-leaning. Just think about how many Comic Con visitors are also heavy Bittorrent users."
Watchmen was downloaded nearly 17 million times from bittorrent trackers like the Pirate Bay and Mininova, according to Big Champagne. The second most pirated film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, was downloaded 13 million times. Heroes episodes were downloaded a total of 54.5 million times, just ahead of the CBS ( CBS - news - people ) show Lost, with 51 million downloads.
Pirates' preference for tights and capes is nothing new. Last year's top pirated film by a large margin was the Batman sequel The Dark Knight, which was downloaded well in excess of 7 million times, by Big Champagne's rough count.
More significant may be the enormous growth in peer-to-peer downloads. The Dark Knight's 7 million downloads wouldn't even place the film in this year's top 10 pirated films. Even marginally successful films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Transporter 3 were pirated close to 8 million times so far this year.
That overall growth in piracy seems to show that users' gradual switch from peer-to-peer music downloads to legal streaming music sources may not extend to video piracy. In a widely read report published in July, analyst firm Music Ally reported that illegal music downloads in Britain had fallen by a quarter between December 2007 and January of this year as young users increasingly used ad-supported free streaming services like Spotify and Last.fm.
But those streaming models may not staunch the flow of pirated TV and video downloads, Big Champagne's numbers show. Every one of the 10 ten most pirated TV shows, in fact, can also be streamed for free on sites like Hulu.com, veoh.com, or major TV network Web sites.
Today's tech-savvy TV audience, says Big Champagne's Garland, simply won't wait even a few days for a live television show to appear on a streaming Web site. That unfortunate fact made 2008 a "breakout year for television piracy," according to Garland. "There's been an evolution of expectation," he says. "If you tell a kid he has to wait a few days to see a television show on Hulu.com, he'll give you a blank stare."
The growing flood of illegal peer-to-peer downloads has recently come under fire in a high-profile lawsuit against the Pirate Bay, the world's most popular aggregator and host of bittorrent tracking files. In April, the Swedish site lost a criminal case filed by a consortium of film, music and media companies; its administrators were sentenced to a year in prison and required to pay $3 million in fines. But even if the Pirate Bay shuts down or removes its infringing files, downloaders will simply move to a host of second-tier sites waiting to absorb the Pirate Bay's audience. (See "Why Google Is The New Pirate Bay.")
In Big Champagne's list of pirated movies, Garland was most surprised by what wasn't on the list: the most recent Star Trek film, which was downloaded only around 5 million times in the last six months. Despite that film's mass geek appeal, Garland chalks its low piracy numbers up to the fact that pirates are skipping the low-quality video versions made with camcorders in theaters, and waiting for a higher-fidelity file stripped from an as-yet-unreleased Star Trek DVD. "I think that really flies in the face of everything we've thought about pirates as undiscriminating viewers," Garland says. "Even pirates will wait for quality. That strikes me as a kind of maturity in the black market."
Regardless of why Star Trek hasn't seen widespread piracy this summer, its producers at Paramount Pictures aren't asking too many questions. Alfred Perry, the studio's vice president for legal affairs, wouldn't speculate as to why Star Trek had eluded pirates. "We can say," he added, "That this is one list we are happy not to be on."