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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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October 21, 2013

Will Piracy Data Tell Us Anything?

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

I think the answer is "probably yes, but people will read it the way they want."

Specifically, EFF Deeplinks blog posted about piracydata.org. The item, written by Maira Sutton and Parker Higgins, gives us the "see, tolja so" point of view. Headlined "Movie Watchers Can't Get What They Want" it pushes the idea that a significant cause of people downloading/watching movie content through illegal means is because they don't have access to legal means of getting these movies.

In the past I've written sympathetically about this point of view: when people appear at your (virtual) door waving cash and saying "take our money, please" it's not generally a good business practice to turn them away. Not only do you lose that immediate cash, but you build an expectation in peoples' minds that they won't be able to buy things honestly so their only alternatives are illegal ones.

So Jerry Brito, Eli Dourado, and Matt Sherman have created a site that mashes up TorrentFreak data on BitTorrent activity with a service that checks for availability of content on legitimate streaming services. The result is a weekly chart with convenient checks and x's for Streaming, digital rental, and digital purchase. So far the chart has a lot of red marks, as popular films are not appearing on streaming services pretty much at all, and sporadically on the other two options. This leads Sutton and Higgins to finger-wag at Hollywood, and I have some sympathy for that. Rapid release of popular features on streaming services would likely capture some of this revenue stream.

But... and there's always a but, that's not the whole picture. For example, the latest data (ending Oct 14, 2013) is captioned, "only 46% of the most-pirated movies have been available legally in some digital form." That use of 'only' is interesting, because I could write a sentence using the same data that says, "Nearly half the most-pirated movies are available in some digital form." I suspect that is exactly how the Cartel would spin these data.

Furthermore, that spin exposes a salient fact: there's not just one revenue stream here. If people are pirating movies they could get in some digital form then it's worth asking why. Maybe it's because they've been conditioned to believe that they won't be able to get it legally so they don't bother to look. Maybe it's because they would rather stream than purchase. Maybe if a streaming option was available it would not capture the audience that is getting the movie over Bittorrent but instead would cannibalize the audience that is now purchasing digital copies.

Bottom line, the data on this chart are too weak and vague to tell us anything meaningful. Attempting to draw strong conclusions from it as the EFF seem to want to do is a mistake.

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