Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter: What matters in OfCom’s piracy stats

By | Published on Thursday 22 November 2012


Almost half of the UK’s internet users aged twelve and over cannot say with confidence whether or not the sources of online content they use are legal or not, according to new research by OfCom. The study is the latest in an ongoing series of reports by the government’s media regulator attempting to identify trends in online copyright infringement before the ‘graduated response’ system for tackling online piracy set out in the Digital Economy Act is enacted.

Of the 5099 people surveyed between May and July this year, 47% weren’t able to distinguish with certainty between legal and illegal services, while only 16% actually admitted to accessing unlicensed content, and only 8% said they relied on illegal sources of music.

When those infringers were asked why they went to unlicensed content sources instead of legitimate sites or services, the most common responses were that the illegal sites were free, convenient and/or quick. Asked what would convince them to stop accessing illegal content, the three most common answers were that they would do so if legal services were cheaper and had all the content they wanted, and if it was clearer what was legal and what was not.

Of course, in 2012 it’s disingenuous for file-sharers and their ilk to say that they download and stream illegal content just because its more convenient, because there are a plethora of great legal services which are very convenient indeed.

And it’s not very convincing either for those people to say that they’d switch to legal services if only they were more reasonably priced. Five pounds a month for immediate access to millions of tracks on your PC, ten pounds to extend that to your mobile, seems very good value to me. And download rates aren’t exactly extortionate, especially if you take advantage of the regular offers provided by the likes of Amazon. Plus, of course, there is a good choice of ad-funded free music services to choose from too. Criticising the legit digital services over pricing is basically saying, “I want all my music for free, and with no ads thank you very much”.

The missing content point is a stronger argument, providing file-sharers relying on it really are trying to access tracks that artists or labels have failed to make available through legit routes. And this is something the music business really ought to have solved by 2012.

While the industry celebrated the arrival of AC/DC, at last, to iTunes this week, it’s really a bit embarrassing that such an important catalogue has only just gone digital. However, while most of the significant iTunes hold-outs are now working with Apple, you won’t find either The Beatles or AC/DC on the streaming services. And while artists perhaps should have the power to control where their music is distributed, many of the Spotify resisters are acts who have made their millions already, and really should be thinking about the good of the wider music community. Because every artist shunning the streaming services is providing ammunition to the aforementioned self-confessed infringers.

Yes the streaming business model is unproven, yes joining the party is risky. But refusing to allow your music to appear on Spotify in 2012 is not that same as refusing to make tracks available on iTunes in 2004. Or even 2011. The world has moved on, music consumption has changed, and the Napster generation are now at an age where they should be becoming the music industry’s biggest customers, but that’s not going to happen if the legit services they are embracing are lacking catalogue.

Heritage acts may still be shifting good units on CD, but for the wider industry the compact disc is in terminal decline, and resisting the future now will just make the future less successful for everyone. Because an increasing number of people, when then can’t find an album on their streaming service of choice, will not just fall in line and go buy the record from the three shops that the artist or label has dictated can sell their music.

When I can’t find ‘Red’ by Taylor Swift on Spotify, I don’t think, “Gosh darn it, I’ll just have to go and buy it from Papa John’s pizza parlour“. I think, “Well fuck it, I’ll just not listen to it then, cos I’ve listened to enough sixteen track pop albums lately to know that a good chunk of it will not be very good. Also, Ed Sheeran co-wrote one of the tracks on it”. Meanwhile those others not willing to take the financial risk of being lumbered with a handful of filler tracks will Google ‘Red for free’ and download it off someone else’s hard drive for nothing.

Though, while missing catalogue remains a bug bear, let’s not forget the most important stat from that OfCom report. Clearly – and this comes as no surprise – the biggest challenge for the content industries in convincing people to go legit when consuming music, film, TV, games and software online, remains the need to better inform the public, telling them why they should make the effort to ensure their content sources of choice are licensed, and how to work out which services are legal and which are not.

OK, some of the infringers who complained about being confused may be taking the piss again. After all, most people finding content online via a search engine with ‘pirate’ in its name know there’s a very high chance the content they download isn’t legal, even if they plead ignorance. So education probably won’t work with this group. Then again, these are also the people who know how to hide their file-sharing from the three-strikes police, and to circumvent the web-blocks put up in front of The Pirate Bay, so there’s probably not much you can do about them.

But remember, this was only 8% of those surveyed, so I say fuck em. Let’s focus on the 47% who implied that they want to do the right thing, but find the whole thing too confusing. Let’s stop handing over cash to lawyers and technology whizzes who want to go after the 8% and focus on doing some decent education with everyone else. Because if OfCom’s research tells us anything, it’s that the music industry’s current educational initiatives, including the Music Matters programme, which expanded into the US this week, just aren’t working in the slightest.

That’s no surprise. As we’ve noted before, the main problem with Music Matters is that while some of the campaign’s expensive looking videos do communicate that “music matters” to both individuals and society at large, it doesn’t explain why that means people should pay for music (or use licensed freemium services). There is also a disconnect between the pretty videos that stand out and the more important part of the Music Matters campaign, information about what music services are legal.

The Music Matters kitemark – which aims to identify the licensed stores and streaming platforms – is useless, because to anyone who isn’t aware of the wider campaign, which is the vast majority of people, the mark means absolutely nothing. Nowhere on the logo does it say the one thing the industry is trying to communicate: “Hey guys, this shit is legal”. Meanwhile, the fact that market leading services iTunes and Spotify don’t carry the kitemark renders the whole thing pointless.

I suppose Music Matters is better that the American record industry wheeling out millionaire pop stars to complain about how file-sharing is depriving them of record sales, but it still feels decidedly mediocre for an industry that, when it comes to selling artists and albums, is actually pretty good at engaging and enthusing consumers. It’s easy for me to sit here and criticise, and I don’t claim to have the answers. But for a start, perhaps instead of forcing ISPs to send out angry letters to those consumers mistakenly downloading unlicensed music files, the labels could start sending thank you letters to those who inadvertently use a legal store.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU

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