The Continuing Rise of Piracy and You

Netnames LogoLast week, NetNames released a study about the size of the piracy universe and it painted a bleak picture about both the amount of copyright infringement taking place and the growth of it.

The study looked at three regions, North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. Those regions, according to the sudy, make up over 82% of all Internet users and over 95% of all bandwidth consumed. From there, the study looked at non-pornographic material on the Web (noting that it was difficult to determine the infringing status of pornography) and attempted to analyze how many people were seeking out infringing material and how much of it was being consumed. The results were then compared to a 2011 study the company had done.

What they found was, in many respects, staggering. The amount of bandwidth dedicated to infringing content increased by 159%, from 3,690 peteabytes in 2010 to 9,567 in 2012. Infringing bandwidth now represents over 25% of all data transferred in those regions.

Also in those regions, some 327 million unique Internet users sought out infringing material during January 2013, an increase of nearly 10% from November 2011. Likewise, page views to infringing sites also increased by nearly 10% in the same time.

But while the news seems very bleak for copyright holders, it isn’t all bad. In fact, there are at least a few pieces of good news to be found in the study and other information that is both interesting and useful.

To help make sense of it and get some practical insight for copyright holders, I sat down with the author of the study, Dr. David Price, to see what the takeaway from this study should be.

The Bad and the Good

Netnames GraphThe bad news from the study is pretty well known and has been plastered in nearly every headline. Online piracy is of a breathtaking size and is continuing to grow. Even worse, according to Dr. Price, it’s continuing to grow in every region of the world and in every way. This includes an increase in the overall amount of content being pirated, the number of people seeking out infringing content and the amount of content each person, on average, downloads.

On one hand, this is a sign that anti-piracy efforts haven’t been working. Millions of DMCA notices sent to Google, massive efforts to shut down sites like Megaupload and even the disappearance of other sites such as Demonoid haven’t halted the growth of piracy overall.

On the other hand, it’s also a failure of legitimate alternatives to stop the growth of piracy. Though the U.S. has an extremely robust market for legitimate content, including Netflix, Spotify, Pandora, Steam and other services, piracy continues to increase, albeit at a slower pace than other parts of the world.

In short, piracy is continuing to increase at a rapid pace and nothing, not enforcement nor opening new legitimate markets, seems to be stopping it.

However, there is some good news to be found in the study. The most obvious is the impact that the Megaupload closure had on the cyberlocker industry.

According to the study, the use of cyberlockers declined heavily between 2010 and 2013. The cyberlockers attracted 8% fewer visitors (despite an overall growth in the Internet during that time), received 40% fewer page views and a well over 50% drop in bandwidth consumed.

“Megaupload was an enormous central file store of infringing material,” Dr. Price said, “It had around 90 million unique visitors per month and its closure removed not just the site and the ability of people to find content, but also the data and the access to that material.”

The Megaupload closure also created something of a shock wave through the cyberlocker ecosystem, causing half of the top ten cyberlockers to either disappear or change policies in the next two months.

However, perhaps the best news was in numbers themselves. Though 327 million infringing users is a very large amount, they only account for an estimated 25.9% of the total Internet population in the studied regions. Furthermore, considering that this number includes anyone who sought any infringing content during the month of January 2013, even just one file, the majority of these are not likely to be heavy downloaders.

While the lack of inclusion of pornographic material means that the numbers are slightly higher, it’s clear that, for non-pornographic content, piracy is not as “mainstream” as many believe and not something that everyone does.

Practical Solutions and Thoughts

The study shows just how vexing the problem of piracy really is. Nothing tried to date has worked in the bigger picture and that includes both enforcement efforts and increased legitimate availability.

To make matters worse, even the good news regarding the impacts of Megaupload may not be able to be replicated in other areas, in particular BitTorrent.

“(Shutting down infringing sites) works well with cyberlocker sites because there’s no replacement and the data on them is destroyed,” Dr. Price said, “That is not true for BitTorrent sites, which are very resilient to attempts to try and destroy them.”

This is backed up by the fact that both Mininova and Demonoid stopped serving infringing files (Mininova removed infringing torrents and Demonoid closed under bizarre circumstances) yet neither of their closures had much impact on the overall use of BitTorrent for infringement.

Still, there are a few practical tips and suggestions that can help copyright holders reduce piracy.

  1. Availability Still Counts: While the study puts an exclamation point on the idea that availability isn’t everything when it comes to piracy, it still helps. Making your work easy to obtain legally and at a fair price can still reduce piracy’s marketshare. It’s why the U.S. is seeing slower piracy growth than other regions.
  2. Niche Content is More Easily Protected: Though it’s pretty much impossible to remove mainstream and popular content from the Web, niche content can be more easily found and removed, often with great success. Works for small, better-targeted audiences may be a wiser move.
  3. Attacking the Money: In the bigger picture, attacking the money stream of infringing sites can be effective as it forces piracy-oriented sites to go to greater extremes to earn revenue, making their sites more difficult and less appealing to use, removing a critical reason people turn to them.

While these steps won’t necessarily eliminate piracy or even drastically reduce it, they’re the best steps available right now,

Bottom Line

In the end, it is obvious that there are no easy solutions to the problem of piracy and anyone who claims to have a simple answer is probably either misleading or just unaware of the complex truth.

Availability alone doesn’t cure piracy but neither does enforcement. Piracy has continued to grow in the face of both widespread efforts to stamp it out and a blossoming legitimate market.

Fortunately though, as rampant and as serious as piracy is, those who do engage in piracy, on any level, are still in the minority by a significant margin. In fact, according to the study, those who pirate non-pornographic content are outnumbered by those who don’t nearly 3-to-1.

It may seem to be cold comfort, especially considering the potential impact 25% of an audience deciding to obtain a work illegally, but it does provide some reason to be hopeful.

After all, if 75% of Internet users don’t engage in piracy and most of those who do are not significant infringers, then there is definitely hope that piracy can be reduced to a point where it is easier to build a legitimate business around copyrighted works.

That, in the end, should be the real goal of copyright holders, not the elimination of piracy, which is an unrealistic goal regardless, but rather to minimize it to a point that one has the ability to grow and thrive in spite of it.

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