Study after study continues to show that the best approach to tackling internet piracy is to provide these would-be customers with high quality, low cost alternatives. For decades the entertainment industry has waged a scorched-earth assault on internet pirates. Usually this involves either filing mass lawsuits against these users, or in some instances trying to kick them off of the internet entirely. These efforts historically have not proven successful. Throughout that time, data has consistently showcased how treating such users like irredeemable criminals may not be the smartest approach. For one, studies show that pirates are routinely among the biggest purchasers of legitimate content, and when you provide these users access to above-board options, they’ll usually take you up on the proposition. That idea was again supported by a new study this week out of New Zealand first spotted by TorrentFreak. The study, paid for by telecom operator Vocus Group, surveyed a thousand New Zealanders last December, and found that while half of those polled say they’ve pirated content at some point in their lives, those numbers have dropped as legal streaming alternatives have flourished. The study found that 11 percent of New Zealand consumers still obtain copyrighted content via illegal streams, and 10 percent download infringing content via BitTorrent or other platforms. But it also found that users are increasingly likely to obtain that same content via over the air antennas (75 percent) or legitimate streaming services like Netflix (55 percent).
“In short, the reason people are moving away from piracy is that it’s simply more hassle than it’s worth,” says Vocus Group NZ executive Taryn Hamilton said in a statement.
Historically, the entertainment industry has attempted to frame pirates as freeloaders exclusively interested in getting everything for free. In reality, it’s wiser to view them as frustrated potential consumers who’d be happy to pay for content if it was more widely available, Hamilton noted.
“The research confirms something many internet pundits have long instinctively believed to be true: piracy isn’t driven by law-breakers, it’s driven by people who can’t easily or affordably get the content they want,” she said.
But it’s far more than just instinct. Studies from around the world consistently come to the same conclusion, says Annemarie Bridy, a University of Idaho law professor specializing in copyright.
Bridy pointed to a number of international, US, and EU studies that all show that users will quickly flock to above-board options when available. Especially given the potential privacy and security risks involved in downloading pirated content from dubious sources.
“This is especially true given that “pirate sites” are now commonly full of malware and other malicious content, making them risky for users,” Bridy said. “It seems like a no-brainer that when you lower barriers to legal content acquisition in the face of rising barriers to illegal content acquisition, users opt for legal content.”
Copyright expert and Techdirt co-founder Mike Masnick similarly told Motherboard his own 2015 study came to the same conclusion. It found that while piracy rates tend to dip slightly in the wake of more aggressive anti-piracy efforts like internet filters, the rate of copyright infringement quickly spikes again once users figure away around the restrictions.
“While Sweden introduced strict anti-piracy laws, the overall rates of piracy in Sweden remained mostly the same before and after that law—with piracy rates of TV actually increasing after the law,” he said. “Those rates only started decreasing years later, after Netflix entered the market.”
It’s hard to dispute the idea that the best solution to piracy is better services, not heavy-handed or draconian internet restrictions, Masnick said.
“Time and time again, studies and common sense have shown that piracy is the result of a failure in the marketplace to provide what consumers want, in terms of convenience, price and selection,” he noted. And while copyright infringement is often portrayed as a purely malignant activity, it’s not always that simple. Another recent study out of Indiana University found that piracy can sometimes act as another form of competition, forcing content creators and cable operators to offer more compelling, affordable services if they don’t want users flocking to illegal alternatives.
“Piracy injects “shadow competition” into an otherwise monopolistic market, and this threat of competition from piracy may give greater incentive for companies to innovate and invest in areas where piracy cannot easily imitate,” Indiana University researcher Antino Kim told Motherboard in an email.
“Ease of use, fast uninterrupted streaming, high definition pictures and sound, multiple language support, tailored services—are just a few example areas where companies can really outperform piracy and differentiate their products from pirated versions,” he noted.
A flood of new streaming competition has highlighted an ironic flip side to this equation. Some early data suggests that as more and more broadcasters and streaming operators come to market (often hiding their own content behind exclusive paywalls) this confusion and high cost (of subscribing to numerous services just to access your favorite content) may risk driving users back to piracy.
That said, the lesson being taught by countless international studies remains the same. If the entertainment industry truly wants users to stop pirating, its best option is to see piracy as a competitor—then offer a low-priced, high-quality alternative.