The Lie is Falling – Dr. Price sizes the piracy universe

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch (Paul Newman) sits astride his horse outside the same boxcar of the same train he’s successfully robbed over and over.  Frustrated by the railroad owner’s ceaseless but futile attempts to thwart the hold-ups, Butch proclaims, “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him!”  Of course it isn’t true, is it?  Neither the character nor probably the real Butch Cassidy would likely have given up the life he knew for something as boring as just money.

If you wanted to watch this classic film directed by George Roy Hill right now, you could do so on Netflix or Amazon Prime or rent it from iTunes for four bucks. None of these innovations existed just a few years ago, and those who have repeatedly insisted that they “only use pirate sites because affordable, flexible, online alternatives don’t exist” are starting to sound a little dumb.  This is especially true as of yesterday, with the release of a new report by Dr. David Price of London-based NetNames, entitled Sizing the piracy universe.

As promised, the goal of Dr. Price’s study was to assess the scope and scale of online piracy, and only as pertains to non-pornographic entertainment. The 100-page report reveals some interesting data about bandwidth use, the business models of different types of pirate sites, and above all data on actual users of pirate sites.  Probably the most compelling conclusion that we can draw from the report is that it refutes this persistent and widely-held misconception that piracy is a symptomatic reaction against the failure of legacy media producers to offer more flexible, affordable ways to consume on demand. Even today’s Intellectual Property Watch website continues to bang this same, flaccid drumhead:

Ericsson has long argued that illegal access to content is mostly a symptom of a problem, not the root cause of it. The root cause being the inadequate availability of lawful, timely, affordable, competitively-priced and wide-ranging choice of digital content. This is fundamentally a market-supply failure.

This is just one of a zillion variations on the theme that a legacy industry is getting beat by a better business model and is just too stupid to learn and adapt to changing times.  Yet, despite the relatively rapid and still-growing number of legal, affordable alternatives for streaming and downloading media (especially video), piracy has in fact increased by substantial margins concurrent with the growth of legal alternatives.  The study reviews data of unique internet users and bandwidth demand over a 15-month period from November 2011 to January 2013, and the bottom line is that explicit search for infringing content increased by nearly 10% in that period alone, with 327 million unique users seeking unlicensed content just in January of 2013. Between 2010 and 2012, infringing bandwidth use increased by 159.3%, which represents 23.8% of the total bandwidth used in the regions covered by the study.

The data are gathered from North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific, which combined, represent about 95% of total internet use worldwide.  The 327 million users who explicitly sought infringing content in January of this year represent nearly 26% of the total internet population in these regions. I asked Dr. Price how the increase in piracy corresponds to the growth of internet use overall, and he stated that not only did the rate of piracy outpace the general growth of internet adoption, but that individual users increased their personal volume of infringing consumption during the period of study.  So, even with the growth of legal alternatives, a population of web users roughly the size of the entire U.S. increased its use of BitTorrents and other infringement sites to view or download their media.

Of course, this is just one of the bigger lies about piracy refuted by the report.  There are some other noteworthy rebuttals of well-worn old saws, if you read the document.  There’s the claim we can’t define a site as “dedicated to infringement.” But the report says we can, and it sounds pretty reasonable to me.  Eliminating from the study all non-infringing uses, the report defines a site dedicated to infrignement thus:

‘Focused’ means that the infringing material comprises more than half of all links or all files posted on the site. For instance, previous analysis by NetNames shows that of all content held on ThePirateBay in December 2011, the majority was infringing (ranging from 78.1% for music to 92.9% for television)

And on the subject of the oft-heard claim that BitTorrent is used for non-infringing purposes.  This is true.  Taking pornography out of the equation, the report estimates non-infringing use at about .015% (see page29).

Finally, there’s the general perception that you can’t stop piracy. But, in fact, the report shows a significant ripple effect across the infringing ecosystems directly related to the takedown of MegaUpload and arrest of Kim Dotcom. (see page 45)

The report has been out for two days now, and we haven’t seen much criticism yet.  Maybe that’s because its methodologies and conclusions are pretty sound.  If so, maybe it’s time to stop talking about piracy as a new model or a driver of innovation or a way to express freedom from corporate control and just talk about it as a cultural phenomenon and, most likely, just a bad habit that’s getting worse.

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  • I don’t excuse online piracy, and I don’t think “it’s not available legally” justifies obtaining content illegally. The copyright holders have the legal right to make their content available in the manner they choose.

    But picking one example of a classic like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and using that as evidence of how good the online video services are seems a bit un-scientific. It’s just as easy to find examples of movies that are not available. Recently a friend and I got on to a bit of a Burt Reynolds kick and decided to revisit some of his older movies: Smokey & The Bandit 1 and 2, Cannonball Run 1 and 2, White Lightning, Gator. Through my Playstation game console I have access to four different legal online video services: Netflix, Crackle, CinemaNow and Sony’s own store. With the exception of Cannonball Run 2, none of those movies were available through any of those services. I don’t have any devices that can run iTunes, but a quick check of the iTunes website reveals that they don’t have Smokey and the Bandit either. We spent over an hour trying very hard to give the copyright owners money in exchange for content, with no luck.

    It doesn’t justify online piracy but the legal options still have a long way to go.

    • It’s just an intro. I figured there’s enough science in the report itself. As for the long way to go, I think the filmed entertainment industry has actually moved very quickly considering what it really takes to adapt compared to public perception of what’s required. That said, I feel your “pain.” When you get in a mood to see certain things, you want to satisfy the urge. But I suspect there’s more than ample cinema to watch while someone gets around to the Burt Reynolds collection. Meanwhile, your frustration is not the result of an industry that doesn’t “get it,” just the result of trying to cram a century’s worth of media into the box and all the legal and technical hurdles this entails.

  • FYI, David Price will be speaking at the Copyright and Technology London 2013 conference on Thursday October 17. He’ll be on a panel called Cyberlockers and Large-Scale Piracy. For details please see; to register, go to

  • Providing a legal, convenient option is important, but that alone won’t solve the problem. The justifications pirates use are irrelevant. People pirate simply because they can. There is no effective deterrent to piracy, and appealing to their morality won’t get anywhere. The “6 strikes” plan isn’t going to do much. If you want to stop piracy, you have to punish the pirates. The MPAA and RIAA tried it once, and it ended up being ineffective and expensive. The problem is that it shouldn’t be the role of the MPAA, RIAA, or any copyright owner to enforce copyright laws. Law enforcement should be doing that, and they aren’t, at least not effectively. Now, SOPA went a bit too far, in that it sought to punish those who provide instructions on how and where to pirate (providing links to torrents for example, instead of providing the actual content), which infringes on free speech. All we need to do is punish the people who are actually distributing and obtaining the content, and I believe we have the ability to do so. The punishment doesn’t necessarily need to be hundreds of thousands of dollars and jail time, but enough to where the legal options start seeming like a good deal. The bad news is it’s probably still going to take an act of congress for this to happen. Congress is not known to “act” these days…

  • Another report you may be interested in, although it’s UK specific- To an extent, it does seem to dispute some of what Dr David Price is saying, although I agree a lot of his data is a useful contribution to the debate. (Although I’m aware that Netnames has a commercial interest in this issue, which makes me cautious). If you’re unaware of them, OFCOM are an independent regulator over here; they’re a reputable and neutral source. Although, naturally, that doesn’t preclude them simply being mistaken on some points.

    • Thanks. Will take a read. NetNames is certainly hired by corporates to do their research, which is always a reason to double-check the work, but the methodologies in this report seem pretty tight to me. I also think it’s a mistake to assume the corporates (in this case NBCUniversal) always have an interest in effecting certain results. My read of this report is that it doesn’t contain a bunch of assumptions or logical leaps. It seems to let the data speak for itself.

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