Last week’s publication of a report for the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property Policy (SABIP) sheds further light on unauthorised downloading activity in the UK (Copycats? Digital Consumers in the on-line age).
But before launching into the key findings, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the provenance and methodology of the research. The study was undertaken by University College London’s CIBER team, which operates independently of the creative industries. This means their assessment of the scale and nature of unauthorised online distribution is impartial- a valuable trait in this highly charged and controversial area.
Furthermore, SABIP, who commissioned the research, is a Non-Departmental Public Body sponsored by the government’s Intellectual Property Office. It advises Ministers and the Intellectual Property Office Chief Executive on the development of intellectual property policy. In other words, SABIP carries some clout in policy terms.
In terms of methods, the research involved a review of exiting literature (mainly primary research carried out by other academics, in the UK and internationally); selected interviews with ‘major stakeholders, regulatory bodies and industry experts’; analysis of media reports on the subject of ‘digital consumers’ in the period January to April 2009; and original fieldwork in the form of ‘an empirical exploration of the phenomenon of online downloading’ (i.e. ‘we went online and found out just how easy it is to “file share”).
So the balance of evidence comes from non-industry sources, although a lot of the large numbers quoted at the start of the report (and which found prominence in subsequent news reports) are from existing industry research (for example, the estimate that at least seven million people have downloaded unauthorised material in the UK). I’m not suggesting industry-derived data are suspect (far from it); but it is helpful, given the nature of the public debate, to draw upon independent evidence (or independently verified evidence) wherever possible.
Which is why the CIBER report is all the more valuable. And from an industry perspective (by industry, we’re talking about commercial music, film and TV businesses, and other IP rights holders including computer software publishers), the research lends weight to the view that piracy is a significant problem. Thus, the authors indulge in a back-of-the-Nicorette packet calculation and estimate that the online members of just one file sharing network consume approximately £12 billion worth of content annually for free. ‘These figures are staggering’, they conclude, and it's hard to disagree.
The CIBER team helpfully present their key findings using a rating scale, where one star means there is little evidence and five stars offer very strong, almost incontrovertible, evidence. In order of strength, here is what the current research literature tells us:
Very strong evidence (CIBER confidence rating: *****):
- ‘There are myriad choices when consuming content and consumers are confused about what is legal and not legal’;
- ‘Attitudes and behaviours towards property in the online and physical worlds are very different’;
- ‘It has never, ever been easier to break the law’;
- ‘Internet service providers and the consumer electronics industry: two elephants in the room’ (in other words, both ISPs and consumer electronics businesses are involuntarily complicit in unauthorised sharing, and they should therefore form part of the solution);
Strong, but not conclusive evidence (CIBER confidence rating: ****):
- ‘The scale of the "problem" is huge and growing’
- ‘There is a powerful idea that there is “no victim”, and so “no crime”’
- ‘Education isn’t working, yet’
The evidence base is somewhat inconclusive and contradictory here (CIBER confidence rating: ***)
- ‘There are fewer cues to guide behaviour in the online world’
In conclusion the authors call for further research, not least to address the ‘fundamental question’, which is not ‘how or why the downloading, copying and dissemination of unauthorised content takes place’, but ‘who does it, (and therefore, who doesn’t), and can this behaviour be changed?’. SABIP is in clear agreement. Dame Lynne Brindley, SABIP Board member, said at the time the research was published: ‘This report gives us some baseline evidence from which we can develop a clear research strategy to support policy development in this fast moving area.’
So we can expect more from CIBER in the near future. But as it is a fast moving area, will the research effort be able to keep pace?