piracyDespite all the obvious economic benefits offered by the internet, digital piracy is proving to be a huge collective pain in the butt for several industries. Critics might argue these industries all need to pipe down, slim down and adapt to new realities – but most people also accept that artists and journalists still need to be paid at the end of the month. Debating Europe sat down with Francis Gurry, Director of the UN World Intellectual Property Organisation, and asked him about the state of digital piracy.

First up, is the problem getting worse, or have we turned a corner yet?

I’m not sure we’ve turned a corner. But I think the problem is becoming clearer and the solutions more apparent. I believe that digital piracy is really a phenomonen of profound structural change, and a product of the most important change since the introduction of the printing press. All content is migrating to the internet. So music downloads, of course, are very difficult to control. Films, increasingly, as bandwidth permits, are being streamed. And print, of course, is changing – with ebook readers and tablets now very user-friendly. We’re going to have to get used to a world with no more printed newspapers.

Parallels with the printing press don’t bode particularly well for the media industry. Is it setting itself up as the Catholic church, struggling in the face of reformation? Ceci tuera cela. The printing press brought about decades of bloody conflict in Europe until a new order was finally settled upon with the Peace of Westphalia. How can we avoid a digital war of ideologies, where the bodycount is measured in job cuts and bankruptcies on the one hand and fines and blocked internet connections on the other? What’s the answer?

The answer is that there’s no simple answer. This involves a vast change that requires some legislative measures. It must be as easy to buy content as it is to download it illegally. It’s going to require cultural changes. It’s going to require better business models, and we’re seeing movement in that direction.

What’s the scale of the issue? Are we talking about the loss of whole industries?

I think it’s a very big issue. The Future Exploration Network that has done a timeline (PDF) of the extinction of the newspaper, and they predict that newspapers in their current form will start to become irrelevant from 2017 in the US to 2040 globally. We have to work out a viable way to sustain news coverage. Amongst their cost structure are all the foreign correspondents who collect news as well as those who analyse it. All of that is a cost structure for which the traditional model cannot cope.

We hear about legal frameworks being tweaked to cope with new advances in technology, but are existing legal frameworks really the problem? Theft is already a crime in all countries. Isn’t the issue more that government and industry are simply struggling to keep up with new technologies and how they’re redefining the market?

That’s a feature of the landscape, yes. Technology is ahead of the response – and it’s not just a legislative problem. Maybe you can tweak laws here or there in some parts of Europe – but I think fundamentally the infrastructure, in terms of the virtual roads and networks, has to change. I think most people agree that you should be able to go online and get in one click a global licence to use a book or a film or whatever it might be. That is not possible, uniformly, and to get there will be a challenge.

Concretely, though, what do we need to do?

I think we have to start with culture. I get criticised for saying this, but we need to make society responsible for this problem. What’s at stake here is something very fundamental: how are we going to finance culture in the 20th century in the digital environment? I think we all agree what the objectives should be, and we want to reconcile two contradictory values: making available on the widest possible scale good content – and the other objective is that we want to finance this content. If we don’t have composers and song-writers and authors because they can’t make a living out of it, our culture will be poorer. 

There has been a lot of controversy around the question of cutting off people’s internet access if they persist in illegally downloading content. Aren’t there all sorts of problems with this approach? Such as infringing the privacy of the user (by snooping on what sort of things they’re downloading) or taking away their basic right to use the internet?

Perhaps we have to go back to the social contract: the internet is a public facility that anybody can use as long as they don’t do certain things. You can’t use the internet for widespread fraud, for example. There are certain limits that we need to stick to; it is important to accept copyright as a basic clause of the use of the internet. If somebody is a repeated offender, and there is a due process that is followed properly, it doesn’t seem to contravene questions of rights. Now, whether this sort of sanction is actually effective is another question.

Going back to the question of changing culture – is this actually feasible? Is it really possible to change a culture when people have become used to downloading content for free?

It’s not something that can be done overnight. If you provide somebody with easy and cheap means to access music, however, then the legitimate market grows. At the end of the day, it can’t be free, because there is a cost involved in the production of the music. How do you change that culture? You have to make it easier to download content legitimately, and you have to make people aware that artists all need to eat and they have families that need to be supported.

What do YOU think, then? What should be the response to piracy in Europe? Tougher sanctions for offenders? Greater ease of access to legal content? Let us know in the form below and we’ll take your suggestions to policy-makers and experts for their reaction.

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14 comments Post a commentcomment

  1. avatar
    Glyn Moody

    One thought: it’s not “theft”, it’s “copyright infringement”. You can’t steal a digital artefact (well, not very easily), only copy it without permission. Doing so does not deprive you of the that artefact, but creates one *more* copy – it’s actually the antithesis of theft, because it adds rather than subtracts, albeit in an unauthorised fashion.

    It’s an important distinction that is often wilfully ignored by those seeking to demonise digital piracy…

    • avatar

      Whatever you want to call it, taking something for free instead of paying for it equals loss of income for the content creator. Reading what Francis Gurry says, I’d argue that demonising digital piracy is the only way to achieve a shift in culture – as long as it’s done in concert with the carrot of making content easier to access legally (cheaper, easier to download, etc.).

    • avatar
      Glyn Moody

      Well, that’s not necessarily the case. For example, copies might be made by someone who would never have bought the digital file in question – there’s no revenue lost.

      More interesting is the case where unauthorised copies lead to *more* paid for sales, and their is increasing evidence that this is common. I link to several pieces of research exploring this phenomenon here:


      It’s not hard to see why this might be. Such unauthorised copying acts as free marketing for the work concerned. Once people have had a chance to sample it, they are more likely to buy it.

      So it might well be in the interests of the copyright interests to *encourage* more such sharing. We don’t know because the commissioned research in this area is so poor, as the recent Hargreaves Report in the UK emphasised:

      “The Review team has examined numerous studies, including those in the table above, and a supporting paper looks at the methodological strengths and weaknesses of this work. With the exception of the Industry Canada study, we have either not been able to examine the methodology of the studies or, where we have, we have discovered problems with the methodology. Consequently, we have not found either a figure for the prevalence and impact of piracy worldwide or for the UK in which we can place our confidence.”

      What we need is independent, peer-reviewed research in this area, and policy based on facts, not lobbying.

      08/09/2011 Christian Engström, Swedish Pirate Party MEP, has responded to this comment.

      28/10/2011 Youngsuk Chi, President of the International Publishers Association, has responded to this comment.

    • avatar

      Do we really need more research? If piracy were GOOD for the media industry, then these should be boom times, right? The British film industry, though, is losing £500 million a year – http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/mar/13/illegal-downloads-threaten-british-film

      And what about the torrent and streaming site operators, who are making money from ads? They’re not operating their services out of charity – they’re doing more than just “covering costs”. And they’re making money out of other people’s effort.

      09/09/2011 Christian Engström, Swedish Pirate Party MEP, has responded to this comment.

    • avatar
      Glyn Moody

      Well, that piece was based around the comments of “Liz Bales, director-general of the Industry Trust for Intellectual Property Awareness”, so you might expect a little bias, although it’s disappointing the Guardian didn’t point this out.

      Here are the facts.

      The film industry is booming:

      “Piracy once again fails to get in way of record box office” – http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/02/piracy-once-again-fails-to-get-in-way-of-record-box-office.ars

      same for music:

      “Oh Look, The Overall Music Industry In Canada Has Been Growing As Well…” – http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110520/03200814351/oh-look-overall-music-industry-canada-has-been-growing-as-well.shtml

      and not only Canada: UK, Sweden and Norway too. And those are just the ones we know about.

      So the fact of the matter is that these are good times, if not exactly boom times.

      Now, I’m not naive enough to think all of this growth is down to piracy, but that’s why I advocate research so that we can tease apart the different factors. That’s not being done at the moment; instead we have industry spokespeople claiming all kinds of unsubstantiated figures that gullible journalists then print.

    • avatar
      Angela Mills Wade

      It is still illegal though…and just as harmful….

    • avatar
      Glyn Moody

      Is it harmful? What evidence do you have for that? In another reply I point to the fact that both the film and music industries are demonstrably *thriving* – not what you’d expect if this digital piracy were really so harmful.

      The point is everyone is simply accepting industry dogma without examining the facts. That’s why I say we need independent research to find out what’s going on before rushing to judgment.

  2. avatar

    2 points –

    1) It is not possible to “change a culture” without serious social engineering. Culture modifies and changes naturally. It reacts to the environment.

    2) If technology allows something to be copied and transmitted for almost no cost, then that is the value of that product: almost nothing. People will expect to pay accordingly. If they are faced with the choice of paying a little or breaking the law, they will probably pay a little. But faced with the choice of paying 20 euros for an album or downloading for free…

  3. avatar
    Michael M.

    @Rob – I was going to say the same thing but Glyn beat me to it. Don’t believe the hype: the film industry is booming, and has been for years now (despite the recession).

  4. avatar
    Scott Elcomb

    “At the end of the day, it can’t be free, because there is a cost involved in the production of the music. How do you change that culture?”

    Instead of trying to change “culture,” maybe the smaller “industry culture” should be changed. Would it not be easier to just cut out the ridiculous salaries and numbers of middlemen?

    • avatar
      Daniel Mills

      Because what we need right now is even more unemployment…

      These “ridiculous” numbers of middle men are supporting families, spending money in the economy and helping other people get jobs.

    • avatar

      The middle men are no longer necessary, and no one should feel guilty for a sector of the market naturally lessening. There was once a time where only musicians could make money off of their music. Then there came vinyls and cassette tapes and CD’s, and with them a whole industry of publishers and subsequently copyright holders. Now, all of these formats are obsolete, and it’s starting to be that not quite as many people can make quite so much money off of musicians and their work, and those very people are kicking and screaming to hang onto it. If you want to talk about someone leeching off of other people, let’s talk about the industry.

      And before we jump to conclusions about whether or not digital piracy harms artists:


  5. avatar
    John Smith

    arent digital versions of films and stuff better for the environment, instead of plastic dvds etc?

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