The Pirates’ Pipedream

Some debates are evergreens. They go on forever, never end, regardless of fact or sense. The material for student debate clubs. The issue of whether piracy hurts legal sales is a good candidate for such evergreen status. As in many such cases, the departure point is absurd: who would pay for anything they already have? That has not stopped researches to spend years and years on figuring out an answer (or many). One could almost say the research on whether piracy hurts legal sales is an economy unto itself. Or at least the attempts to prove the impossible is in high demand.

You will recall the crazy story from last year with the supposedly “buried” Commission-commissioned report that “proved” that piracy not only does not hurt legal sales but even helps in some cases. It was full of holes of course, and my guess is the reason it was “buried” was inferior quality rather than inconvenient truth. It had huge method problems (such as starting the data collection AFTER the main changes had happened) and misquoted sources (all three game organisations that had made submissions disagreed with the interpretations). The real question – which was never asked – is why the report authors would do something like that. Either they were clueless (in which case they should probably not do formal research) or they were intentionally misleading (in which case… well you get it). What’s the word again? Fake news.

Now the same research firm, Ecorys, is back at it with a new study. The conclusion? Surprise! Legal sales are not hurt by piracy. According to the study, piracy is on the decline in Europe. Except it doesn’t look at Youtube and other established platforms where illegal content distribution is on the rise. So it’s probably not a decline in piracy as much as a move from pirate downloads and streaming to semi-legal sharing platforms. It also repeats the pirates’ favorite theory that those who are big consumers of illegal content are also big consumers of legal content (which nobody has debated) so therefore piracy leads to legal consumption – obviously a completely absurd conclusion, on par with the correlation of Nicholas Cage movie releases and swimming pool drownings. Basic causality theory: A may cause B. B may cause A. A and B may be caused by C. More factors may be involved. Patterns may also be random. If I’m a movie fan, I may watch movies both on legal and illegal services. If I’m only into horseback riding or daytrading on the stock market or outdoors cooking or whatever, I may not watch movies online regardless of source. Correlation is not causation. (Figure out Nicholas Cage and the swimming pools for yourself.) It is weird I even have to write this (for the umpteenth time!), a three-year-old gets it: cake and presents are connected by birthdays. You cannot make birthdays happen by baking cake.

Another finding in the study is that piracy correlates to low purchasing power and thus suggests lower prices for content. Except content is already priced according to purchasing power (this is the debate on territorial licensing, remember?) and consumers pay plenty for hardware and broadband subscriptions, so it’s probably not only the pricetag. Also, Denmark has about 10% pirate users in the adult population. Sweden has about 25%. Are the Danes really that much richer than us Swedes? I know they eat deep-fried pork rind for snacks and drink plenty of beer (we get potato crisps and apple juice, not so bad), but really? Perhaps the Danes are too busy snacking to pirate.

The study makes the point that legal services are a good antidote against piracy. Anyone against that? I thought the problem was that the legal services have a hard time competing with the illegal competition and the platforms, but perhaps legal services will magically arrive if we just stop thinking that piracy hurts sales?

Please, can we move this conversation to the student debate clubs already? There are some real issues to discuss: How do we make sure creators rights are respected online? How do we make the best services for the consumers? How do we make sure online platforms respect the law? How do we fight propaganda and fraud online? Make a study about that, Ecorys.

(I don’t think I have to tell you who commissioned the study.)