A newly-released study from Columbia University gives the most comprehensive picture to date of digital media pirates. Bob talks with one of the study’s authors, Joe Karaganis, about what the findings mean for online copyright infringement and why the failure of a six strikes policy is only a matter of time.
BOB GARFIELD: So who are these average, everyday downloaders of songs and movies? Until recently, we didn't know much about them, what they did or how they felt about it. Enter the Copy Culture Survey, one of the most extensive studies of digital media sharing to date. It turns out about 14 percent of Americans get the majority of their music and movies illegally but close to 50 percent have obtained some content illicitly, and that number rises sharply if you're 18 to 29 years old. Joe Karaganis is one of the authors of the Copy Culture Survey, and he says that on the question of attitudes towards file sharing that pirates have some surprisingly nuanced views.
JOE KARAGANIS: Most of our findings suggest that people understand copyright as a set of tradeoffs between creators and the public. Creators deserve rights of exploitation of the work they create but, at some point, it's also valuable for ideas and the creative work to circulate. The more it circulates, the more it enriches us in general and creates incentives for new work. This is sort of the bargain inherent in copyright. Most people recognize that tradeoff and struggle with it.
We did find that most people simply don't view infringement as a serious offense. You know, only 52 percent of the people in our US survey supported penalties of any kind for the downloading of a single movie or film. And then when you begin to break it down to the types of penalties that people think are appropriate, most of them will say that funds are an appropriate step, warnings are an appropriate step. Very few of them will propose stronger penalties, things like throttling your bandwidth so that your Internet is slower or disconnection from the Internet.
BOB GARFIELD: And as they download a film or a song, are they considering it a guilty pleasure? Do they feel some sense of mischief? What is their attitude about what their behavior actually is?
JOE KARAGANIS: Basically, we, we find that there’s a kind of public/private distinction that runs throughout attitudes toward copying and sharing. So, in general, there's a high degree of tolerance of sharing among friends and family and quite a bit less tolerance for sharing through large-scale file sharing services. So the, the catch, of course, is that for people under 30, for people who’ve grown up with Facebook and other social media, “friends” has become a very elastic concept.
So that’s really where the law is beginning to bump up against some very significant changes in how people interact and how they build their communities through, among other things, the sharing of media.
BOB GARFIELD: How did your respondents react to the idea of having their individual ISPs monitoring their online behavior?
JOE KARAGANIS: Well this, for me, was one of the most interesting findings of the study. There is majority support for copyright enforcement online. But the more conflicts you introduce into those questions, the lower support goes.
If you ask the question, would you support enforcement if it meant over-enforcement, then you’re already down to a 37 percent support rate. And under all existing models, filtering of content is over-filtering. There is no model that perfectly captures infringing material because what constitutes infringement is very much in flux and very – often very debatable.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the conflicts that we see when we talk about things like regulating file sharing is the conflict between the practical means of limiting this kind of online behavior and the surveillance methods that it takes to follow what people are up. Can this ever be reconciled?
JOE KARAGANIS: This is really the question that comes up in looking at the Copyright Alert System. The Copyright Alert System engages in surveillance of certain kinds of Internet use. If you’re using a peer-to-peer network, it's very likely to flag you, and you may get a warning as a result.
But everybody knows that that will simply drive people to other less observable forms of file sharing. There are streaming systems that you can share face to face. You can share through Dropbox, you can share through email. And so the enforcement question becomes how much further do want to go to go to surveill other kinds of Internet activity and other forms of use of people's computers?
So I’m less concerned about the Copyright Alert System than I am about what happens after it fails. The fact that it's almost guaranteed to fail to produce the kind of impact that its proponents want just sets up the next conversation, and now we’ve set a precedent for surveilling people’s activity. We think people value privacy higher than they value copyright enforcement.
BOB GARFIELD: Clearly, the people you surveyed are conflicted as to what to do and what the society should do. But one thing they seem to show is that they're willing to pay for the opportunity to have universal access, along the lines of a Netflix model. Could you give me more details?
JOE KARAGANIS: Sure. Well, we, we found that there’s, in general, a very high willingness to pay for, you know, legal convenient media and, in fact, the highest among those people who do the most file sharing. This has turned into a bit of a hot potato as people pick up the report because it doesn't conform to some of the ideas about what piracy is.
For most of the last decade, there just weren’t very good means of music discovery and, you know, the possibility of a kind of universal jukebox. That's beginning to change. So people who, in our survey, said yes, they pirate also said that they do so less because of the emergence of these legal means of discovery and listening to large databases of music.
BOB GARFIELD: Joe, thank you very much.
JOE KARAGANIS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Joe Karaganis is vice president of the American Assembly, a public policy institute at Columbia University.