Is There New Hope in Anti-Piracy Policies?

Michael Policy

The UK has launched an offensive on piracy and reports show that it is having an effect. UK leaders are already claiming a victory while at the same time proposing new measures to take the piracy fight to the next level.

The War on Drugs Terror Piracy

In mid July the UK government unveiled its plan to lengthen the max prison time for someone convicted of online piracy. After extensive lobbying by copyrights holders, officials claim that the current maximum of two years is not doing enough to deter the crime. They propose that a 10 year sentence (and minimum of 5 years in some instances) might do the trick. The suggestion is given credence, in their eyes, because this is the policy for offline copyright infringements.

The Minister of Intellectual Property Office, Baroness Neville-Rolfe, had this to say:

By toughening penalties for commercial-scale online offending we are offering greater protections to businesses and sending a clear message to deter criminals.

Proponents of the changes to anti-piracy sentencing claim that it is aimed at organized and commercial copyright infringement; essentially the operators of large piracy sites- not the people who use them.

The government subsequently opened a consultation for a month in which they encouraged both opposing and supporting remarks about the change to be submitted.

Anti-Piracy Proposal not Acceptable, Affordable, or Feasible

Although the UK will not make the remarks made during the open consultation known until after it has ended, on August 17, two opposing remarks have already been made public by their respective owners.

The first is from British and Irish Law, Education and Technology Association (BILETA). In their conclusion BILETA pretty much agrees with your first thought on 10 year prison sentences for piracy- too harsh.

Our conclusion is that there is no need to change the law as the proposal: (i) is not acceptable, i.e. legitimate means to tackle… commercial scale online copyright infringement are already available and currently being used…10 years seems disproportionate; (ii) is not affordable; (iii) is not feasible; (iv) is not compatible with the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights].

BILETA goes on to propose the maximum anti-piracy sentence should be four years.

The second group to speak out against the proposal hits at another point. Executive Director of Open Rights Group (ORG), Jim Killock, alleges that it will be not just large-scale violators, but also the common naive user that will be caught up in this harsh punishment.

Pointing to the undefined term used in the proposed bill ‘affect prejudicially,’ Killock said this:

…it creates scope to abuse the law. It is hard to know what ‘prejudicial affect’ is. It is hard to estimate damages from online sharing or access… The result is that people who are not really criminals, but are rather just naive users, may face punitive claims. At the very least, the risk of criminal claims means naive infringers can be pushed into accepting heavy punishments to remove the risk of long jail sentences.

Anti-Piracy, Gaining Ground?

This new push into limiting piracy has gotten a solid foothold in the positive effect that the UK has seen from its attempt to limit file sharing sites’ profits.

Last week, UK’s Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) announced that since 2013, when Operation Creative was launched, they have seen a 73% decline in advertising. This number focuses on “the UK’s top ad spending companies on copyright infringing websites.”

Estimates say advertising was responsible for putting $227 million in the pockets of piracy sites in 2013, according to a report by the Digital Citizens Alliance. Seeing as how this is the way that free piracy sites make money it has certainly made a dent in their wallet: although the real world impact is still questionable. In some instances brand ads were replaced with police banners alerting netizens that the site was under investigation.

The truly ironic thing about this, however, is that taking an anti-piracy stance might be actually hurting the industry it is trying to protect. Studies have shown time and time again that the biggest pirates also spend the most on legal content.

A study conducted by Ofcom in the UK (and analyzed here on geek.com) from 2013 shows that there are a few different types of file sharers.

There’s the “Justifying Infringers,” the “Digital Transgressors”, the “Free Infringers”, and the “Ambiguous Infringers” according to Ofcom. Each of these groups behave in a pattern that is predictable enough to put them in these categories, and from there the group can establish other patterns of behavior from these groups.

The report goes on to say that the Free Infringers make up about 10% of digital consumers- but are only responsible for 12% of infringements.

The top 10% of infringers are  responsible for 79% of all infringements and only constitute about 1.2% of digital consumers over 12 years old. This group spends nearly three times as much money on digital content and services over six months. In all, on every level, pirates, which make up 15% of total web population, spend more on digital content than regular consumers.

Piracy infringement in the hands of a few

A breakdown of the top 20% of infringers vs the lower 80% from study conducted by Ofcom in 2013

Another study from Norway found that out of 2,000 online music users, those who downloaded free music were 10 times more likely to pay for music- making music pirates the industry’s largest consumer base.

You Call it Piracy, We Call it Freedom

Piracy like many other issues, is not just black and white. Even the numbers and statistics presented in the studies mentioned in this article are not the whole story. Although UK officials can certainly claim some level of victory with limiting the revenue created by advertising; the actual effect that it has had on file sharing is yet to be determined.

Other studies like one conducted by Incopro- which I also wrote about– claimed a 73% decrease in traffic to piracy sites after blocking their domain also offer bragging rights to officials. However, this study was unable to take into account visits using VPN, proxies, domain name changes, and mirror sites.

On the other side of the coin a similar study using the same criteria except accounting for domain name change showed that blocking the domain actually made the site more popular. This study did not account for VPN, proxies, or mirror sites as well.

Let’s face it, piracy is just the evolution of bootlegging. Instead of VHS being sold on the side of the street, we are now able to download content online. Pouring resources into anti-piracy is likely a waste of resources. Like I’ve offered before, perhaps companies should take a page out of Netflix’s book and look at piracy as a competitor- not illicit activity.

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