Why the €œCopycats?€� Report has a Copycat Problem

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Along with death and taxes, one of the other certainties in life is the constant flow of reports from the media industries claiming that copyright infringement is causing them to loses billions of pounds of revenue each year, and that they will inevitably go to the wall if even harsher legal sanctions against infringement are not brought in (although, strangely, they have been saying this for about 10 years now, and they seem not to have gone bust yet....)

Of course, you might expect industries to paint the situation as bleak as possible – that's why they spend large chunks of their considerable revenues on expensive PR companies and lobbyists to “sex” things up a bit. But there are other kinds of reports, typically sponsored by national government departments, that claim to provide more objective information about what is happening in this field.

Sadly, those expectations of objectivity are not always fulfilled. The most blatant example occurred just this week, when some fine digging by Michael Geist showed that a report from The Conference Board of Canada, which purports to be an independent research institute, not only copied text verbatim from the International Intellectual Property Alliance (the primary film, music, and software lobby in the U.S.), but also used figures from an old Canadian Recording Industry Association press release to justify dramatic statements like the following:

As a result of lax regulation and enforcement, internet piracy appears to be on the increase in Canada. The estimated number of illicit downloads (1.3 billion) is 65 times higher than the number legal downloads (20 million), mirroring the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s conclusion that Canada has the highest per capita incidence of unauthorized file-swapping in the world.

As Geist points out:

While the release succeeded in generating attention, the report does not come close to supporting these claims. The headline-grabbing claim of 1.3 billion unauthorized downloads relies on a January 2008 Canadian Recording Industry Association press release.

That release cites a 2006 Pollara survey as the basis for the statement. In other words, the Conference Board relies on a survey of 1200 people conducted more than three years ago to extrapolate to a claim of 1.3 billion unauthorized downloads (the survey itself actually ran counter to many of CRIA's claims).

After stupidly trying to defend this indefensible position, The Conference Board of Canada has now backed down, admitted that the report plagiarised material, and withdrawn it, along with two others.

Against that background, the appearance of the report “Copycats? Digital consumers in the online age”, produced by University College London's CIBER for the UK governmnent's Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property Policy (what a name) takes on an added significance. Among other questions, one issue is to what extent the report manages to look objectively at the facts, rather than blithely accepting the highly-partial views of the media industry itself.

The 85-page report is detailed, and as you might expect from an academic outfit, is fully referenced, which is excellent. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in this important field read the whole thing. But for those of you slightly more pressed for time, the executive summary gives a good flavour of its approach:

The backdrop to our research on online consumer behaviour – and the impacts and implications this has on legal practice, the content industries, and governmental policy – is one of vast economic losses brought about by widespread unauthorised downloading and a huge confusion about (or denial of) the definition of what is and is not legal and copyright protected.

Industry reports suggest that at least seven million British citizens have downloaded unauthorised content, many on a regular basis, and many also without ethical consideration. Estimates as to the overall lost revenues if we include all creative industries whose products can be copied digitally, or counterfeited, reach £10 billion (IP Rights, 2004), conservatively, as our figure is from 2004, and a loss of 4,000 jobs. This is in the context of the “Creative Industries” providing around 8% of British GDP. And the situation is not solely a British problem, but a global one.