Sneakernet Piracy Under The Microscope: Home Taping Is Killing Stereotypes

Okay, let’s admit it. We all have our own ideas of what a movie pirate looks like. Maybe we think of him as a sun-depraved teenager, spending his nights scouring torrent sites. Or we remember the guy who tried to sell us bootleg DVDs downtown the other day. Maybe we believe in a connection between movie piracy and organized crime. Or maybe we just think of the guy we get to see in the mirror every morning.

Either way, it might be time to do away with these stereotypes and think of piracy as a much more pervasive practice. That’s one of the conclusions of a new report titled “Changing Attitudes & Behaviours in the ‘Non-Internet’ Digital World and their Implications for Intellectual Property” that was just released by the U.K.-based Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property (SABIP). It focused on all the types of piracy that don’t have to do with downloading and file sharing, ranging from bootleg DVDs to shared hard drives. And it turns out that this kind of “sneakernet” piracy is at least as popular as P2P file sharing.

Much of the research available about copyright infringement has been conducted on behalf of organizations or companies with a stake in the debate: The entertainment industry regularly publishes data about economic losses due to file sharing, and companies selling solutions to enforce intellectual property rights have also been busy collecting data to show just how vast the problem is. SABIP doesn’t quite fit into this picture. It’s part of the U.K.’s Patent Office, and aims to help the government with independent research provided by outside consultants who seem to be mostly interested in doing more research. In other words: Don’t expect any easy answers from these guys.

Still, the 84-page study (PDF download) is an interesting read. It sums up various existing studies looking at offline piracy, both from industry and market research as well as academic backgrounds. Here are some of the key findings the authors decided to highlight: Between 9 and 16 percent of U.K. adults buy counterfeit DVDs, and an additional 23 percent join in on watching or simply borrow those disks. In the UK alone, 89.4 million movies and TV shows are distributed via counterfeit DVDs and various forms of home-copying per year. And much like BitTorrent, physical piracy is a gift that keeps on giving: Only 32 percent of DVDs burned at home are copies of original retail disks. Most people just duplicate what someone else copied for them.

The study also highlights some interesting demographic facts about offline piracy: “Offline consumers of counterfeit discs are older, with dependent(s), more likely to belong to lower socio-economic groups –- as compared with the predominantly young, well educated, technologically-savvy demographic who infringe copyright online.” Another reason that drives people to physical disc piracy are babies and toddlers that make it impossible to catch current releases on the big screen. Maybe the key to fight piracy would be better babysitters?

Speaking of fighting piracy: The study finds that there is little rights holders and authorities can do to stop this type of file sharing. Copyright doesn’t seem to be on people’s minds when they buy pirated DVDs or swap movies from hard drive to hard drive. Only 31 percent of people who abstain from offline piracy quote legal reasons as the deciding factor to do so, and most people who do go for a fake copy cite price and availability as the primary reason.

However, that’s not really reflected in most of the research about the subject. Many studies still treat piracy as a willful act. Some consumers decide to break the law, while others stay clean. Truth is, most people don’t even bother thinking about this distinction. “In reality, … legality is just one of a multitude of factors that influence consumption decisions,” the study finds. Add to that what the study calls “confusing market signals,” like the fact that movies get marketed way before they’re available for sale on DVDs, and that DRM seems to punish the people who decide to buy with an added layer of inconvenience, and you got yourself a situation in which offline piracy just seems to be the most logical choice for many consumers.

The authors of the study clearly warn that there hasn’t been enough research done to completely explain why and how people use pirated media. That’s a pity, especially since stricter laws against online file sharing seem to ignore offline trading. From the study: “There is some evidence to suggest that illegal consumers would refrain from downloading if ISPs’ role as a ‘capable guardian’ were to increase, but this is not conclusive, and it may simply shift illegal consumption to the offline arena, where the law is even less enforceable.” In other words: Three strikes against P2P piracy could make sneakernet piracy even more popular.

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