Getting to the heart of the piracy debate

by on October 16, 2013 · 7 comments

The launch of our new site PiracyData.org has predictably stirred up a good debate and I thought I’d chime in with a couple of thoughts. First I’d like to address the assertion by some, including Jeff Eisenach and Daniel Castro, that the point we’re trying to make with our site is that piracy is justified when content is not available legally. Here is Eisenach:

The Mercatus site is headlined by the following question: “Do people turn to piracy when the movies they want to watch are not available legally?” The implication is that piracy of movies that aren’t being offered legally is OK, or at least less bad, than piracy of movies that are currently available.

In both my post announcing the site and the Washington Post article Eisenach links to, as well as other articles about the site, I make it clear that there is no excuse for piracy. Piracy is illegal and wrong and copyright holders should be able to exercise their exclusive rights as they see fit during the term of copyright. I don’t know how much more explicit I can be. That said, although piracy is illegal and wrong, it may still be the case that the legal availability of content has an effect on piracy rates. That is a possibility that we are pointing out, not celebrating.

Second, I’d like to address the assertions by Eisenach and Castro that I am advocating that the movie industry should change its business model to collapse the theatrical release window, and that I think doing this will solve the piracy problem. Here again is Eisenach:

If you believe copyright holders have an obligation to make all content available to everyone all the time (as PiracyData.org seems to suggest), at what price would you require them to offer it?

In my post announcing the site I wrote that “their business model is their prerogative, and it’s none of my business to tell them how to operate,” and that’s something I repeated in other articles where I was quoted. So to be clear, I don’t think movie studios have any obligation to do anything. And I certainly don’t think that shortening their release windows would “eliminate piracy,” as Castro said.

Having addressed what I didn’t say, let me reiterate what I did say. The context for the creation of PiracyData.org was the MPAA report arguing that search engines were not taking sufficient voluntary measures to combat piracy. That study was released on the same day that the House held a hearing on “the role of voluntary agreements in U.S. intellectual property system” at which it was also argued that search engines, and Google in particular, have not done enough to combat piracy. The message from the content industry was, to echo Eisenach, that Google has an obligation to take all possible steps to end piracy. It is the nature of this notional obligation that we wanted to probe with PiracyData.org.

Hopefully I’ve been sufficiently clear that we all think that piracy is illegal and wrong and a problem that the content industry is rightfully up in arms about. So the question that we’re really debating is not whether piracy is right or wrong, but how to enforce copyright. How many resources should be expended, and by whom? That’s what this debate it really about.

Over a year ago, Google changed its algorithm to demote sites in its search results based on the number of copyright complaints those sites have received. An algorithmic change is as deep a change in a search engine’s business as one can expect. The message coming from the MPAA report and the House hearing, however, was that Google’s efforts were not enough, and that they should take further voluntary steps to not only remove infringing links from their search results, but also promote to the top legal sources.

PiracyData.org is never going to show all the ways that availability can affect piracy rates, and I’ve been clear about that both in my launch post and in interviews I’ve given, but I think that simply looking at the availability of the most-pirated movies will help shed some light on the simple question of whether people might turn to piracy when there is no legal version available. As the MPAA report noted, the majority of consumers who found themselves at infringing links “did not display an intention of viewing content illegally.” So the question is, why did these consumers who had no illegal intent end up at infringing sites? If they turned to piracy because they could not find a legal version, that would not justify piracy, but I hope we can all agree that it would be good to know whether it might be happening.

So it seems to me that we have identified two contentions of how piracy might be addressed. One is to have search engines voluntarily take more and more steps to change how they present the Web to users in order to address piracy. The other is that movie studios could shrink the theatrical release window. These are not mutually exclusive, and I think we see both happening. Google, as I mentioned, has already changed its algorithm and taken other measures, and as the MPAA has pointed out, the movie studios are working hard to make their movies available when and where consumers want. The question, therefore, is whether these efforts are enough or not, and what is the best way to enforce copyright.

Without a massive investment in enforcement, the sad reality is that piracy rates will never be zero. So what we should debate is whether additional enforcement efforts are worth the cost. As much as we might not want it to be the case, at some point there are diminishing marginal returns to more enforcement. If we determine that more could be done, then then the question is who should make that investment. Should it be search engines or the movies studios who should consider further changing how they do business?

Now, let me say that I am absolutely sympathetic to content owners who are put in incredibly unfair position of having to compete with piracy. As I said before, under the law they have the exclusive right to determine how they will distribute their works, and it is galling that they might feel forced by pirates to adopt a business model against their wishes. That is not fair to content owners. That said, the fact that they are facing this competition from piracy, as unfair and reprehensible as it is, is a fact that can’t be ignored.

In sum, these are the tough questions we should be discussing, not distractions about whether anyone is condoning piracy or whether anyone is blaming the victim, etc. We were hoping that PiracyData.org would spark that discussion, and boy have we had a big return on our investment! Now we need to make sure that we keep this debate on the serious and nuanced questions, and this is often hard to do over tweets and quotes in articles. So we are thinking of holding an event here at George Mason with all points of view represented to discuss these real questions. Stay tuned for details.

  • doopey1

    And yet you tweeted “Here’s why Hollywood should blame itself for its piracy problems”: https://twitter.com/jerrybrito/status/390124990601101313 It’s hard to have it both ways.

  • http://hightechforum.org/ Richard Bennett

    The question of business models and piracy cuts both ways; Google has a business model too, and it’s hostile to paid content. See: http://www.hightechforum.org/whose-business-model-is-to-blame-for-internet-piracy/

  • Eliste

    Do you provide data of whether it’s legally available outside of the US or only inside? Most pirate sites are global and access for US based v non-US based users is vastly different in terms of legal availability.

  • http://www.ebog.me/ ebog

    The problem of piracy between the two sides seems increasingly fierce, really worried for 2 because I think this dispute will not go anywhere.

  • http://www.friv2friv3friv4.com/ friv 2 friv 3 friv 4

    The question of business models and piracy cuts both ways; Google has a business model too, and it’s hostile to paid content.

  • http://digitally-free.blogspot.com/ d.free

    When people want content, they’ll get it any way they can. I don’t support piracy, but the (overpriced) theatres are essentially the only way to see a film until it’s released another way. Some wait – and many don’t.

  • WarMacre

    Is there any evidence to support the claim that piracy harms the profits of the film industry? It’s easy to say piracy is wrong, it’s illegal, the copyright holders have a right to enforce their rights, etc. but the most important questions are “will ending or diminishing piracy increase sales?”, “in the absence of piracy, will those who source movies in this manner choose to buy instead?”, and also “can the film industry actually use the pirate medium of torrenting to increase exposure, therefore increasing legit sales?”.

    It’s easy for a company to say they are losing money to piracy, but there’s a fact they need to understand: people choose not to buy. But is the film industry really ‘losing’ or just not gaining because people are choosing not to buy? If I buy a cheap pizza at Iceland (UK frozen food store) instead of from PizzaHut, do PizzaHut have a legitimate claim to state that Iceland are losing them money? Even further, if I choose not to eat pizza at all, are they right to still make a claim that they are losing my money?

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