Esther’s eyes were glued to the colossal screen, with her popcorn bucket half-empty in one hand and a bottle of Coca-Cola in the other. The auditorium buzzed with collective gasps and laughter. The film, A Tribe Called Judah was one of Nollywood’s newest releases. The movie, a near masterpiece resonating with raw emotions and captivating storytelling, had already grossed a million naira at the box office barely three weeks after its release. As Esther walked out of the cinema, a notification buzzed on her phone. Glancing down, her heart lurched. A pirated copy of the movie she had just seen was nestled within a Telegram group, ready to be watched at the click of a button. The 7k ticket she had paid, a deliberate splurge meant to support art and experience it in its purest form, suddenly felt tainted by the readily available digital alternative.

While most people use Telegram for more secure mobile chatting and messaging, Esther Osaze and her friends started using the messaging app to download copyrighted films and web series available on streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime for free. One of her friends, Elizabeth, discovered the platform through her class group chat and introduced it to the rest of the friend group. In the last year, Esther has downloaded popular web series such as Stranger Things and Real Housewives of Lagos from Telegram. And she’s not alone.

Telegram is a versatile cloud-based messaging app with over 800 million active users, known for its emphasis on speed, security, and feature-richness. Launched in 2013 by two Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Dirov, it offers end-to-end encryption meant for secure interaction. It has a feature called secret chats that allows only the messenger and the recipient to decrypt the messages. These messages are not stored on Telegram servers and self-destruct after a set time.

Beyond messaging, it allows users to discover and subscribe to public channels that share news, entertainment, and educational content. This makes it popular among news enthusiasts, niche-interest groups, community builders, and entertainment fans. The platform is said to have 800 million active users as of 2023. In the last few years, a new set of users have increasingly started using the app to share and download pirated copies of films, TV series, and games, rather than purchase them authentically.

The making of the piracy den

The modus operandi is unique in each case of pirate content distribution. Usually, most of the films get leaked during their post-production phase. This is because many people are involved in this phase, and some of them may have access to the film. These copies are stolen, hacked, or sold by insiders to pirates who upload them online.

Torrent sites used to be the go-to for digital piracy. However, torrent sites face many challenges and risks that make them less appealing to users and providers. Some torrent files may contain malicious software that can infect the user’s device and compromise security and privacy. Many people who pivoted to telegram, do so in search of a hassle-free way to download copyrighted content. Ekene Okafor, another Telegram user who exclusively uses the platform to download pirated content, says that the ease of access is one of the best features of the platform. “Downloading movies and series from torrent websites was frustrating and tedious. You had to be clever enough to know which link would give you the right movie result. The constant ads and redirects were annoying,” he said. Besides, many torrent sites have been shut down or blocked by authorities due to copyright infringement or other violations. 

Telegram’s heightened privacy and broadcast potential, with lesser limits on the number of people who can join a channel, also makes it a ripe platform for sharing pirated copies of copyrighted content. Telegram allows up to 200,000 people to join a private channel or chat group. Users can share files as large as 2GB. In comparison, WhatsApp only allows 1024 people to join a group. Moreover, Telegram’s end-to-end encryption prevents foreign intruders including telecom providers, internet providers, and the messaging platform itself from being able to decrypt the conversation. 

Another factor that attracts people to Telegram piracy in Nigeria is the high inflation rate and the high cost of living. Nigeria has one of the highest inflation rates in the world, reaching 28.9% in November 2023. This means that the prices of goods and services are increasing faster than the people’s incomes, reducing their purchasing power and living standards. The state of the economy has also harmed entertainment. Last year, Pay-Tv company MultiChoice announced a 19% price hike for its DStv and GOtv packages. In 2022, the average price for movie tickets in Nigeria was 2,177 naira. Last year, it went up to an average of 4000 naira. During the festive season, movie tickets sold for N7,000 at IMAX cinemas. Telegram, on the other hand, is a free app that allows users to download movies with low data consumption.

The popularity of these groups can be measured by the number of subscribers they have. One channel named “Nollywood Movies Channel” has over 127000 subscribers and a daily reach of more than 1.5 million. The channel has an average of 3.6 posts per day and 42,857 views per post. As of 2022, Nigeria is Telegram’s largest market in Africa, with approximately 54 per cent of the continent’s users coming from the country in the third quarter of 2022. The ease of dissemination of pirated content via the messaging platform fuels the rising loss to the content industry.  

Significance of this menace

The Nigerian film and content space has long battled piracy. In 2015, Nollywood filmmaker Kunle Afolayan, and other movie industry practitioners like Yemi Shodimu, and Tunde Kelani, held a peaceful march against piracy in Lagos. The year before, Nollywood lost about 82 billion naira to piracy. For filmmakers, the challenge is ever stark. Piracy poses an investment threat that could plunge a filmmaker into losses and sometimes debts. It also undermines the value of the content, depriving the filmmakers of their rightful revenue and discouraging them from producing more quality content. 

Telegram piracy is not only a threat to the Nollywood industry, but also to streaming platforms with legitimate rights to the content. A report by Bar and Bench states that subscription-based platforms are facing between 25% to 30% loss of revenue, as they lose views and subscribers to illegal platforms which pirate content. Pay TV is not spared. The global TV industry’s losses from digital piracy range from $39.3 to $95.4 billion annually. With the advancement of technology, the menace has only waxed stronger and the perpetrators more daring. 

What does the law say?

The new Copyright Act, of 2022 seeks to guarantee adequate protection of rights and effective enforcement of those rights, particularly in a digital environment. Some of the issues the Act addresses are piracy and unauthorized streaming – the new Act introduces provisions for take-down notices. Copyright owners can exercise their digital rights to prevent piracy by issuing written notices to service providers, requesting the removal of infringing materials.

However, with an app such as Telegram that enables private and secure transmission of data, the difficulty in keeping tabs on pirated content and distributors of such content has put the enforcement authorities in a quandary. According to John Asein, the Director-General of the Nigerian Copyrights Commission, “the expansion of high-speed internet around the world, the proliferation of portable devices, and the rise of online streaming platforms had made tackling illegal exploitation of rights more difficult.” 

Telegram has faced criticism for hosting controversial content in large channels, though it constantly implements moderation measures. The platform has a policy of deleting channels and groups that violate its terms of service. However, Telegram’s moderation is largely reactive and dependent on user reports. Many channels and groups manage to evade detection or suspension by changing their names, links, or content. And some channels can restore their content or subscribers under new pseudonyms after being deleted. 

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