Arrr you a digital pirate?

The Consequences of Illegal File-Sharing

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Although the internet allows us to discover and enjoy media, this development has also encouraged an increase in the illegal download and distribution of music, films, books and other original works. The common occurrence of piracy may lead people to underestimate its significance, but for the purposes of law, it remains a crime. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 protects “original literary, artistic, dramatic, musical work”. Piracy, or file-sharing as it is colloquially known, is theft.

Digital piracy rises in spite of the availability of legal streaming services like Netflix and Spotify. According to the Intellectual Property Office, reasons for infringing were mainly that: it was free (44%), it is convenient (41%) and it is fast (38%). Similarly, the YouGov survey discovered that 51% of respondents were not happy when music was released on just one platform, making it difficult to access. An example is Beyoncé and Jay Z’s ‘Everything in Love’, which was only available on Tidal.

While music piracy has dramatically decreased in the past 5 years, it remains prominent in this era. A report published by YouGov revealed that 10% of Brits still illegally download music, down from 18% in 2013. The biggest threat to the global music industry is ‘stream-ripping’ content from YouTube. Stream-ripping, which converts online files into downloadable files, remains the most popular means of pirating music. Sites allowing this attract millions of users and figures estimate that a third of UK 16-24 year olds have stream ripped from YouTube.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) revealed the music industry had faced losses of $12.5 billion by the year 2012 due to piracy, with more than 71,000 jobs lost including songwriters, producers and artists. Losses meant that record companies were having to cut down on their employees as they could not afford to keep them on, exemplifying the knock-on effect that ‘trivial’ file-sharing has.

The Music Industry is unable to invest in new talent as they have fewer funding options, and so they must focus on established artists. This may discourage independent artists who cannot rely on record labels to represent them and promote their music. However, signed artists are suffering just as badly. Record Labels pay out advances to artists before releasing music and then recover that from the sales. When sales don’t make as much, they write off a loss. Also, royalties are paid to artists for every song that is purchased; however, when we illegally download an artist’s work, both the record label and the artist are deprived of that compensation.

Artists such as Eminem have expressed their disdain: “when I worked 9-to-5, I expected to get a paycheck every week. It’s the same with music; if I’m putting my heart and all my time into music, I expect to get rewarded for that.” Ergo, piracy kills the incentive to create music. But more importantly as a consumer you are also exposed to risks.

Cracking Down on Digital Piracy has revealed that digital pirates profit by monetising stolen content. Traditional methods involve recording from a movie theatre and uploading online, but stream-ripping from legal TV and video services has become more common. According to the report, the operators of these sites can let criminals plant malware in exchange for money. They do this by uploading content for free as bait to attract a large number of viewers. Then, the criminals can hijack the users’ computer and access sensitive information such as bank details or passwords.

Unknowingly engaging with illegal sites not only allows criminals to make money, it also leaves you vulnerable. This information can then be sold on the dark web and used as a means of identity theft.

It is a similarly unfortunate story with eBooks. Research shows that almost one fifth of eBooks read online are now pirated. This amounts to approximately 4 million books that authors and publishers aren’t getting paid for. So not only does piracy exploit original works from independent and creative people, it can also cause them financial loss. Novelist Maggie Stiefvater, author of The Raven Cycle, explains that when eBook sales “dropped precipitously”, her publisher decided to cut the print run of the next book in the series to less than half of its predecessors.

A pirated book may rob the publishing potential of its sequel. Publishers may not see the point or profit of publishing work already made accessible and these monetary concerns hinder the creativity and recognition of authors who have invested time and skill in writing original works.

Every pirated download of a book is a lost sale, compromising the livelihood of the author. According to a survey carried out by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society, the median income of a professional author in 2017 was around £10,000 and the number of full-time professional authors has declined by 25% since 2005. The perpetrators, as noted by Stephen Lotinga from the Publishers Association, aren’t generally young people or people who cannot afford access to these books. Rather, Ebook pirates “tend to be from better-off socio-economic groups, and to be aged between 31 and 50-something,” in other words, people who have the means to afford books but pirate anyway.

Films and tv are also affected in a similar manner- when they aren’t financed, they do not get made. This can be detrimental to independent filmmakers who may have spent years making serious financial sacrifices. But also, it affects you as a viewer. With the lack of revenue, production houses are reluctant to make ‘risky’ adventurous choices. Gareth Naeme, executive producer of Downton Abbey, notes that “one may think an individual act of piracy doesn't matter, but if that becomes a way of life then the value of intellectual property becomes eroded,” the reality of which is that your favourite show may be cancelled or not aired in the first place.

Paul Briley, CCO of anti-piracy firm Muso, explains “that nine out of ten people who are accessing unlicensed content also have legal subscription services, “The reality is that the majority of people who have gone through the effort of finding and accessing such unlicensed content are, first and foremost, fans – fans who are more often than not trying to get content legally if they can.” This shows a correlation between the increase in accessibility of content and decrease in piracy, and often people may resort to it when the content is not available on the platforms they are already paying for. Those pirating recreationally are often unaware of the impact their actions have on the people who work and make their living from these creative industries.

The reality is that justifying piracy means justifying intellectual theft, which is an infringement of a person’s right to create and contribute to society. Ignorance of this infringement does not evade liability. Literary works, which include eBooks; music; films and tv shows etc, are protected locally and internationally by copyright laws.

Distributing copyrighted works by running a computer with a ‘Torrent’ app set to upload; owning articles that make copies i.e. via Kodi boxes with add-ons or other software; stealing someone else’s content and re-uploading it i.e. on Youtube etc are all forms of piracy. These can all lead to fines or imprisonment between 3 months to 10 years, or both, depending on the severity of the crime.

Recently, Wayne Evans was sentenced to 12 months in prison, just through uploading the Top 40 hits as announced on a weekly basis, as well as distributing material through his own website which included acapella music for DJ-ing and mixing. The reason why somebody pirates is irrelevant. Whether for profit or artistic expression, the legal repercussions are still the same.

Pirates who work at a larger scale are often involved in reinvesting that money into other criminal activities such as prostitution, drugs and dog-fighting. As emphasised by Kieron Sharp, director general of Federation Against Copyright Theft, “whether you're pirating physical copy or streaming, you are putting money into the hands of a criminal."


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