As the insatiable thirst and demand for online content streamed and downloaded continues unabated, it is inevitable that not all consumers will be doing so legally - blame game theory. Despite best efforts, online piracy remains a persistent problem and the question on the lips of many is how can copyright infringement online be stopped without giving away content for free?
It is obvious that threats and penalties, the stick, seemingly have little effect in acting as a deterrent in stemming piracy and an increasing body of evidence backs this up.
Psychological research conducted has shown that threats do little to stop people downloading illicitly as the perceived risk is too low and ‘tis but a scratch - the reward outweighs the risk. The reward here being the three greatest perceived benefits of illegal downloading or streaming; better quality of content, the flexibility (and ease) and the cost - free. *
If the stick isn’t working then surely it’s time to think about carrot as well? At the very least it would be prudent for content providers consider incentives and alternatives to punishment, after all every pirate, download and illegal stream constitutes lost revenue.
It is worth noting that when the three key drivers, the reward, of online piracy are addressed by the increased availability of better, legal alternatives, a sharp reduction occurs. It’s a fair assumption to say that as Netflix and Amazon continue to grow their market dominance this trend will only continue. It is no coincidence that the biggest spenders at this year’s Sundance Film Festival were these two platforms. Could it be that with film and television, things will go the way of Spotify? Remember that when Spotify launched in 2008, it was very much seen as an alternative to music piracy, not the actual de facto replacement it has become.
Pirates however are pirates. When asked why they pirated, a frequent justification given was that their spend on existing media more than justified it. To some degree this justification is backed up by the findings of certain studies.
According to a report commissioned by the Department of Communications and Arts in Australia in 2016, this is certainly proving to be the case. It should be pointed that certain parameters apply to Australia that aren’t as much of a factor in other countries. Aussies often feel that they are given second online fiddle, content reaches them after other countries and then at an increased price, leading many to turn to illicit means. However, when presented with better legal alternatives, pirates cease or curtail their activities. Pirates accessing the legal alternatives still pirate, just to a lesser degree. Going back to the three main reasons for pirating; better quality, flexibility and cost, then in Australia a platform like Netflix will have a dramatic impact on habits. A strong case can be made for cost being the driving factor here - Netflix provides an excellent, relatively cheap alternative. However, it could well be the case that as Netflix brings with it an earlier release window that this could be the main draw in luring pirates away from their illegal activities. Obviously there are caveats with Australia and why people pirate there. It is likely that people pirate for different reasons in different countries and it would be worth conducting in depth research to ascertain their reasons.
Legal platforms are not the silver bullet to stopping illicit activities however. Yes, they work particularly well in Australia, but the same does not ring true for other countries and many are still agonising over what model they should adopt to ensure their content remains monetised. Platforms such as Spotify, Netflix and Amazon have had a substantial impact in reducing piracy, but the fact remains that pirates are still pirating and often it is the material that is hosted by these platforms.
So the conundrum remains, what’s the best method to reduce piracy, increase monetisation and turn pirates into paying customers? Is the best model a mixture of free streamed and premium content the route to go? Great stock was placed in the try before you buy model, but as a viable solution this model now seems to be collapsing, price being the probable cause. That’s not to say that variations of this model can’t work. Amazon Prime releases pilots for free, but this is more to serve the purpose of gauging likely success, the information then being used to green light projects or not. And when Monty Python released a slew of content for free, there was a corresponding rise in sales of Monty Python content. There was also the added bonus of a whole new generation of younger fans being exposed to the Python’s material thereby spreading the amusement and purchases further, however this is a particular case. Streaming for free does indeed reduce piracy, but it comes at a cost, in the form of lost revenue from people who would’ve purchased but have streamed instead.
A report produced for Ofcom in 2013 stated “that no single enforcement solution is likely to address online copyright infringement in isolation; a complimentary mix of measures including better lawful alternatives, more education about copyright and targeted enforcement is more likely to be successful.” It is these methods that seem to be bearing fruit in the on going fight against piracy rather than threats and punishment. This runs contrary to the rhetoric and desire of many politicians and industry leaders alike to ratchet up the pressure of enforcement and penalties. This sounds like strong effective action but in reality it has proved to be ineffective.
What is abundantly clear is that a raft of measures some of which have been discussed here need to be deployed to prevent and decrease piracy and correspondingly increase monetisation. Ascertaining key drivers for piracy on a country-by-country basis is necessary, as this will impact what is effective in driving rates down and what isn’t. What works for Australia doesn’t work for the UK, and what is applicable to the UK doesn’t fit for Sweden. As always trying to work out what will work best where is difficult without access to appropriate data. Studying and gaining insight into the massive amounts of content downloaded and streamed worldwide by millions would provide the means to analyse what models work where, extrapolate why, and lead to the possibility of country-by-county tailored solutions.
It is evident that there is no one single answer to preventing piracy and we will need to keep thinking of new solutions and models if we are to make pirates pay and get them to part with their pieces of eight. The question that will have to be asked sooner or later though is can online piracy be stopped, or like Pandora’s Box, is it too late?
*OCI tracker – High volume infringers analysis report – Prepared for Ofcom by Kantar Media