Study: Digital Piracy Is Common in the United States

LOS ANGELES—Considering the anti-piracy measures currently being considered by the House and Senate, a preliminary report just released detailing the extent and type of digital piracy that is currently taking place in the United States is impeccably timed. Sponsored by Columbia University’s The American Assemble project, and supported by a research award from Google (of all companies), the results, released this Tuesday, were excerpted from a larger impending survey-based study titled, Copy Culture in the U.S. and Germany.

“Drawing on results from the U.S. portion of the survey, it explores what Americans do with digital media, what they want to do, and how they reconcile their attitudes and values with different policies and proposals to enforce copyright online,” wrote Joe Karaganis, vice president at The American Assembly.

The U.S. portion of the survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. The results are based on interviews on landline and cell phones conducted Aug. 1-31, 2011 with 2,303 adults living in the continental United States.

Though the full results of the survey will not be released until early 2012, the preliminary report provides a revealing snapshot of the extent to which average Americans engage in various levels of digital piracy.

While the study addresses digital piracy related to non-adult-oriented content such as music, mainstream movies and television shows, the results of the study can be somewhat extrapolated to the illegal use of pornography. However, it also is possible that attitudes regarding the pirating of adult content will be different from those regarding mainstream content, especially among young people. In other words, though the principle is the same, the likelihood exists that a sizeable percentage of respondents would have said that pirating adult content is more acceptable than pirating non-adult content.

Preliminary conclusions are:

* ‘Piracy’ is common. Some 46 percent of adults have bought, copied, or downloaded unauthorized music, TV shows or movies. These practices correlate strongly with youth and moderately with higher incomes. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 70 percent have acquired music or video files this way.

* Large-scale digital piracy is rare, limited to 2 percent of adults for music (>1000 music files in collection and most or all copied or downloaded for free) and 1 percent for film (>100 files, most or all from copying or downloading).

* Console-based video game piracy is very rare, limited (on any scale) to 1-2 percent of the population.

* Legal media services can displace piracy.  Of the 30 percent of Americans who have ‘pirated’ digital music files, 46 percent indicated that they now do so less because of the emergence of low-cost legal streaming services; among TV/movie pirates, 40 percent.

* Copyright infringement among family and friends is widely accepted (75 percent and 56 percent, respectively, for music; 70 percent and 54 percent for film). In contrast, activities that imply dissemination of copyrighted goods to larger networks receive very low levels of support.

* Only a slim majority of Americans (52 percent) support penalties for downloading copyrighted music and movies—and limit this support to warnings and fines.  Other penalties, such as bandwidth throttling and disconnection, receive much lower levels of support.

* Disconnection from the Internet, in particular, is very unpopular, with only 16 percent in favor and 72 percent of Americans opposed.

* Among those who support fines, 75 percent support amounts under $100 per song or movie infringed—hugely undershooting the current statutory penalties.

* For a majority of Americans (54 percent), due process in such matters requires a court—not adjudication by private companies.

* Solid majorities of American internet users oppose copyright enforcement when it is perceived to intrude on personal rights and freedoms.  69 percent oppose monitoring of their Internet activity for the purposes of enforcement. 57 percent oppose blocking or filtering if those measures also block some legal content or activity.

* Comparable majorities (56 percent) oppose government involvement in “blocking” access to infringing material. This number increases to 64 percent when the term “censor” is used.

* Blocking and filtering by commercial intermediaries such as ISPs, social media sites, and search engines receive majority support—until the questions include likely consequences. Majorities of internet users support requirements that ISPs and search engines “block” infringing material (58 percent for ISPs; 53 percent for search engines). This support runs as high as 61 percent for a soft requirement that user-content driven sites like Facebook “try to screen all material and reject pirated copies of music and videos.” But this majority disappears when blocking by ISPs is characterized as censorship (46 percent support), falls further when associated with the blocking of legal content (36 percent support), and still further when it implies surveillance of Internet use (26 percent support).

* Which scenario best approximates the Stop Online Piracy Act?  In our view, ISP blocking that also blocks some legal content. In this case, internet users oppose blocking: 57 percent to 36 percent.

The entire preliminary report can be accessed here.