Study: Online Copyright Infringement Drops As Legal Services Rise

It seems that copyright infringement through file-sharing networks may be eroding these days. A new study by Kantar Media says that copyright infringing activities has suffered over the years while use of legal services continue to rise.

Litigation, lobbying, and lawmaking has long been the recipe for major entertainment industries to combat copyright infringement. Anti-piracy efforts have focused largely on litigation and tightening copyright laws in various countries around the world. Examples of this include the infamous Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the US or the three strikes law in France, South Korea, and New Zealand. Digital rights advocates have argued that litigation is not the solution to these problems, but providing legal attractive alternatives. After more than a decade since the appearance of Napster, a new study seems to further provide evidence that the advocates were probably right all along.

The study (PDF) published by the Intellectual Property Office and conducted by Kantar Media is showing some interesting trends in the digital market place. One of the first key findings of the study is as follows:

Fifty-nine per cent of UK internet users aged 12+ consumed at least one item of online
content (legally or illegally) over the three-month period March-May 2016. Thirty-nine per
cent had downloaded content, and 52% had streamed or accessed content. The streaming
activity has grown significantly from previous waves. This is the highest level of streaming
or accessing content online we have seen to date.

For many keen observers, this probably isn’t a huge surprise. As the Internet ages, adoption of not only use of the Internet will rise, but also how people access content as more and more of it becomes available. The number of people who grew up without the Internet will only decrease and the number of people who grew up in the age of the Internet is only going to rise.

By what method do people obtain that content online is what has been a source of anxiety by industries like the music and movie industry. Some in the past had hoped that the Internet would just “go away” like a passing fad. After extensive litigation, people would one day return to the music store and buy vinyl and CD’s as if the Internet never existed. That obviously didn’t happen.

Since media organizations have focused so heavily on legal action to stop online copyright infringement, there was a long period where legal sources simply didn’t exist. As litigation continued, use of things like file-sharing and one-click hosting services continued to rise in spite of so-called “deterrent” efforts.

Some people credit Apple’s iTunes and the iPod for sparking sparking legal alternatives. The services didn’t rise without friction with the industry and consumers, but things have steadily improved since then. The question is, since the introduction of of legal alternatives, what has been the net result on file-sharing? As the study suggests, a gradual overall decline:

– Half of those who consumed or shared any content online in the past three months used
YouTube (49%), followed by the BBC iPlayer and Amazon services. BBC iPlayer service
usage has declined from 44% in 2013 to 37% 2015 to 35% in 2016, but remains an
important source, particularly for the non-infringers.

– Spotify has shown a significant increase in the proportion who use the service since 2015
rising from 16% to 19%.

– Use of Peer2Peer (P2P) continues to drop from 12% to 10% at the total level and 26% to
23% among infringers.

– Last wave we picked out uTorrent as the highest penetration individual peer-to-peer service
used, uTorrent at 17% in 2015 and although still leading we have seen a significant drop
to 12% in 2016.

– We also see a significant drop in the use of YouTube by infringers since last wave from
63% to 58% in 2016.

There are a number of ways to read into these findings. One way of reading into this is that the rise of online streaming and hosting services could account for a drop in file-sharing. It’s hard to argue that there aren’t any people using file-sharing networks less and streaming services more. One incentive for streaming services is the fact that you won’t be filling your hard drives with files like file-sharing can do. Not everyone out there gets overly excited over quality after all as YouTube’s popularity can attest to.

Even if people are flocking away from more established networks to unauthorized streaming services, that still doesn’t account for why such services also experienced a drop. One might then point out that file-sharers have long said that they’d be happy to pay for content. So, it’s not hard to suggest that some users are migrating away from unauthorized services to authorized services.

Even if one is of the opinion that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between the drop in file-sharing and unauthorized services and rise of legal alternatives, the trend is there. Furthermore, when litigation activities and changes to the law to restrict such activities took place, the best result was a temporary disruption to the overall trend of copyright infringement. One of the only changes in the marketplace that produced long term results to date has been the introduction to attractive legal alternatives. What else has happened that resulted in a long term decline in the use of unauthorized services? Shutting these services down didn’t work. Arresting scene groups didn’t work. Mass litigation didn’t work. DRM (Digital Rights Management) didn’t work. A three strikes law didn’t work. ISP throttling didn’t work. The only other thing that even remotely worked was the notice-and-notice regime introduced in Canada.

With such findings, it’s no surprise that an organization like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has come out to say that this is further proof that more copyright laws are needed. From EFF:

New research from the United Kingdom paints a very different picture of the state of online media consumption. The new report shows that unauthorized access to copyrighted media is on a steady decline, with only 5% of Internet users getting all of their online media through rogue methods, and only 15% of users consuming any infringing content. Similar studies in the US have shown a steady decline in unauthorized downloads here too. The numbers show that if Hollywood really wants to curb infringing media consumption, the best thing it can do is improve its official offerings.

Whatever your opinion is on the copyright debate, this study will only bolster the position of digital rights advocates on the matter.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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