Can media piracy be stopped?

Media piracy is rampant in emerging economies. A new study looks at how it can be controlled.

Mikhail Metzel / AP / File
A young woman puts pirated CDs on display in a Moscow kiosk in this 2002 file photo. Media piracy is widespread in emerging markets like Brazil, India, Russia, South Africa, Mexico, and Bolivia.

Surprise! You can’t stop the flow of media piracy with every-more-draconian measures. This stunning conclusion was recently published last week by the Social Science Research Council, as a report called “Media Piracy in Emerging Economies”. The study focused on emerging economies, where media piracy is rampant, like Brazil, India, Russia, South Africa, Mexico and Bolivia. The report argues that efforts to enforce copyright law have largely failed, and that the problem of piracy is better conceived as a failure of affordable access to media in legal markets. Of course, without the state-granted monopoly on copyright, the media commodities being traded on the black market would quickly find the price the market is willing to pay.

What did 35 researchers discover after 3 years of studying the problem? Their answers could have been lifted from an Austrian Scholars Conference (maybe they pirated them…)

The major findings in the report:

  • Prices are too high. High prices for media goods, low incomes, and cheap digital technologies are the main ingredients of global media piracy. Relative to local incomes in Brazil, Russia, or South Africa, the retail price of a CD, DVD, or copy of MS Office is five to ten times higher than in the US or Europe. Legal media markets are correspondingly tiny and underdeveloped.
  • Competition is good. The chief predictor of low prices in legal media markets is the presence of strong domestic companies that compete for local audiences and consumers. In the developing world, where global film, music, and software companies dominate the market, such conditions are largely absent.
  • Antipiracy education has failed. The authors find no significant stigma attached to piracy in any of the countries examined. Rather, piracy is part of the daily media practices of large and growing portions of the population.
  • Changing the law is easy. Changing the practice is hard. Industry lobbies have been very successful at changing laws to criminalize these practices, but largely unsuccessful at getting governments to apply them. There is, the authors argue, no realistic way to reconcile mass enforcement and due process, especially in countries with severely overburdened legal systems.
  • Criminals can’t compete with free. The study finds no systematic links between media piracy and organized crime or terrorism in any of the countries examined. Today, commercial pirates and transnational smugglers face the same dilemma as the legal industry: how to compete with free.
  • Enforcement hasn’t worked. After a decade of ramped up enforcement, the authors can find no impact on the overall supply of pirated goods.

Ironically, the report itself is distributed under a Consumer’s Dilemma license, which “shifts the developing-world consumer’s dilemma onto other geographies and income brackets.” So if you live in a rich country, you pay more, and if you are unfortunate enough to be in the business of enforcing copyrights on media, your price is a cool $2,000. The warning at the bottom of the page reads:

Non-compliance with this license (or with appropriate fair use/fair dealing exceptions and limitations) is an act of piracy, subject to prosecution under applicable national law. For US residents, this includes criminal prosecution under the No Electronic Theft (NET) Act, punishable by up to three years in prison (for a first offense) and $250,000 in fines per act of infringement.

For those who must have it for free anyway, you probably know where to look.


Today CNET published this timely gem, White House wants new copyright law crackdown. It seems the Feds are concerned about falling behind, and they want to get in on this new-fangled “streaming” thingy:

The White House today proposed sweeping revisions to U.S. copyright law, including making “illegal streaming” of audio or video a federal felony and allowing FBI agents to wiretap suspected infringers.In a 20-page white paper (PDF), the Obama administration called on the U.S. Congress to fix “deficiencies that could hinder enforcement” of intellectual property laws.

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