5 things worth noting about that piracy research

No, half of Australian Internet users aren't pirates

The release yesterday of a government-commissioned report on the scope of copyright infringement in Australia created quite a stir.

It was widely covered in the press and a statement released on behalf of Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said it reinforced the need for action to tackle copyright infringement in Australia.

But amid the blaring headlines about a piracy epidemic in Australia, some of the important details of the report, as well some of the odd claims made in it, got lost.

(You can read my article on the release of the report yesterday here.)

1. It's not half of Australians pirating

A number of articles claimed that the report, which was conducted by TNS Australia, showed that half, or nearly half, of Australians — or at least Australian Internet users — engaged in piracy. In fact, it showed no such thing.

Part of the confusion stems from one of the headline figures in the Department of Communications' press release about the report. That figure was that, according to the study, 43 per cent of Australian consumers of digital content had illegally downloaded content.

However, the important caveat is that that figure refers specifically to consumers of digital content — not all Australians or even all Australian Internet users.

If you look at Australian Internet users aged 12+, the percentage of people who had accessed at least one item of content illegally in the three months covered by the report, the percentage drops to a significantly smaller 26 per cent.

Also not as frequently mentioned was that only 7 per cent of Internet users exclusively consumed 'illegal' content in that period.

As an aside, it's probably worth noting that the effects of the government's online copyright crackdown — such as the new law that allows rights holders to apply for injunctions that will force ISPs to block pirate websites — is likely to have at the very least indirect effects on all Australian Internet users.

2. 'Pirates' buy more stuff

The report shows that people who had accessed at least one piece of content illegally in the three-month period covered by the survey actually spent more money than those who consumed "100% legal" content.

"For each content type, those who consumed a mix of legal and illegal content spent more money over a 3 month period than those who consumed 100% of their content legally, but those who consumed 100% of their content illegally spent the least money," the report notes.

(The fact that those who exclusively consumed 'illegal' content still spent money is also interesting to note.)

For example those who engaged in "100% legal" consumption of movies spent an average of $126.20 on them during the three-month period.

Those who engaged in a "mix of legal and illegal" consumption of movies spent a significantly higher $199.70.

3. That report has some WTF-ery tucked away in it

The report has a few downright bizarre claims in it. Perhaps the oddest is this claim: "Infringers were far more likely than non-infringers to use peer-to-peer methods, in the form of BitTorrent software (26%), uTorrent (28%) and Pirate Bay (19%), whereas 5% or less of non-infringers said they had used these services. Peer-to-peer methods were most prominent for movies, with uTorrent the second most used movie service."

For obvious reasons this kind of juxtaposition of something like uTorrent (a BitTorrent client) with the Pirate Bay (which provides links to .torrent files) and BitTorrent (which could refer to either the protocol or specific software) is a little bit odd.

At one point the report notes that it doesn't capture whether participants in the survey "had legally used Netflix’s Australian service or had illegal [sic.] used a foreign Netflix service".

The report here refers to the use of anti-geoblocking services to access non-Australian versions of Netflix's streaming service.

In an attempt to allay concerns over the government's website-blocking bill, Turnbull released a FAQ stating that using technologies such as VPNs to bypass geoblocking was not illegal.

In fact the situation is a little bit more complex, but it is striking that such a definitive claim that evading geoblocking is "illegal" was made in a government-commissioned report.

4. It's not great news for the copyright notice scheme

In addition to legislation to allow the blocking pirate websites (via a system of court injunctions), a major component of the government's offensive against online piracy has been the introduction of an education/warning notice scheme.

Although backed by the government (with the threat of direct regulatory action if it doesn't get introduced), the scheme has been developed by telcos and rights holders.

Under the scheme — assuming it actually gets introduced (ISPs and rights holders are still in a brawl over the cost of implementing it) — ISP account holders that rights holders have linked to alleged incidents of copyright infringement will receive a series of up to three warning notices.

The end result could be an expedited discovery process in court as a prelude to a copyright lawsuit.

However, most participants in the research who engaged in copyright violations didn't feel that the threats of potential lawsuits and letters from ISPs were likely to change their behaviour.

Among infringers, the potential for a lawsuit was cited by only 23 per cent as something that would stop them from pirating.

Getting a letter from an ISP threatening to suspend Internet access was cited by 21 per cent, getting an ISP letter revealing their account had been used for copyright infringement was cited by 17 per cent, and a threat from the ISP to throttle Internet access was cited by 17 per cent.

5. Cost and content availability still seem key to reducing piracy

In fact what was most likely to have an impact on piracy was cost and availability of content.

Among pirates, cutting the cost of legal content services was the most popularly cited change that would cause them to stop infringing.

That was cited by 39 per cent of those who indicated they had consumed content illegally.

That was closely followed by content an individual wanted to access being available (38 per cent) and content being released at the same time as it is elsewhere (36 per cent).

"Based on the government's own research, the education notice scheme that's been submitted for approval is the least effective option for stopping piracy," Choice's campaigns director, Matt Levey, said in a statement issued yesterday.

"We have to ask why is the industry so keen to pursue this scheme when the research shows there are easier, better options available?"

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