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Piracy excuses are a smokescreen for “free”

by Lori Flekser

With industry responses to the controversial Australian Productivity Commission Report into Intellectual Property due by February 14, it’s timely to scrutinise the myths behind the misused arguments about availability and price of copyright-protected works, and their part in online piracy.

Underpinning the recommendations of this report from the Australian Government’s independent research and advisory body is the assertion that “timely and competitively priced access to copyright-protected works is the most efficient and effective way to reduce online copyright infringement” (Finding 19.1).

This is the mantra most chanted by pirates, echoed by so-called consumer groups and endorsed by media - that high prices and lack of legal alternatives ‘force’ consumers into illegal downloading and streaming.

It’s time to recognise just what this is: a smokescreen.

Despite music companies licensing hundreds of digital music services to release music simultaneously, around the world, including many free streaming services, an unacceptably high level of unlawful downloading of music persists:

  • Torrent sites remain in the top 10 services for accessing music (little change from 2015 to 2016)
  • 32% of all Australians obtained some unlawful music in 2016 and 15% obtained all their music unlawfully.1

Given the music industry has solved the issue of access, availability and price, if we subscribe to the argument advanced by the Productivity Commission, there should therefore be little to no music piracy in Australia. Sadly, that is not the case.

Annual research by Creative Content Australia (CCA) since 2008 to understand the attitudes and behaviours of Australians to movie and TV piracy provides an unparalleled insight into the frequency and incidence of piracy and the rationale behind it.

So what do we know? Availability and affordability do not materially reduce film and TV piracy.

Shouldn’t the significant increase in content services and the drop in prices over the past five years have dramatically decreased film piracy in Australia? CCA research indicates that the reduction in adults has been slight, with no recent discernible change in the behaviour of younger Australians.

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In fact, 12-13 year old Australians have almost doubled their piracy activity, from 14% active in 2014 to 23% in 2016.3

The fallacious perception that movies are slow to come to Australia persists, even though the gap between US and Australia cinema releases has reduced significantly; from films being released 47 days earlier in the US than Australia in 2002, to just over one week in 2016. Over 50% of films in 2016 were released in Australia before the US.

But one of the most compelling statistics about the availability myth comes from research that shows that piracy spikes – sometimes by up to 300% - as soon as the legal digital copy is made available online.

In 2015, the producers of Australian comedy The Little Death discovered that Josh Lawson’s directorial debut had become the third most pirated title in Australia, after it was released on DVD. In just two days, the film was downloaded over 160,000 times.

Australian producer Jamie Hilton said: “Widespread illegal downloading of our film started as soon as it hit Blu-ray. Making films and television is not only creative, it's also a business. Films cost millions of dollars to make and employ hundreds of people and these costs are repaid by selling tickets and managing our online rights. ‘Free’ is not a viable business model”.

Price/affordability is another stick the Productivity Commission bludgeons the creative industries with, accepting poorly supported arguments that consumers are willing to access legal content “where it is available at a fair price”.

What is a “fair price”? The answer appears to be ‘nothing’. As a 17yo CCA research respondent said: “Even at 99c each, I download and stream too many shows for it to be a reasonable price”.

CCA has examined the motivation for online content piracy over eight waves of research since 2008. Year after year, the primary reason is because it’s free.4

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The TNS research confirmed ‘it’s free’ (52%) to be the top motivator for unlawful content consumption - with little difference between ‘100% unlawful’ users and ‘mixed’ users.

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Yet, the Productivity Commission report chooses to accept the CHOICE survey where “38 per cent of respondents cited expense of legitimate content as the reason they infringed copyright; … TNS Social Research (2015) found similar results in its study.”

Actually, the TNS research had “I think lawful content is too expensive” as the fourth most cited reason.

“Too expensive” is a very different rationale for content theft to “it’s free”.

Which one of us would not opt for lower prices for ANY of the goods or services we use?

One in five Australians (and 2/3rds of persistent pirates) say they would pirate even if a movie was legally available, at the same time, for $5.99 or a TV episode for $2.99 – less than the cost of a cup of coffee.7

Australia is well-served with world-class Subscription Video on Demand services offering unlimited viewing for a small monthly fee. Contrary to the Commission’s conclusions, these services are not more expensive than overseas - Australian pricing is virtually on par with UK pricing and below US pricing.

With around 83 million visits to Australian cinemas in 2016, the market clearly offers a range of prices that suit many consumers. Right now, in January 2017, I can buy a cinema ticket for $10 (Auburn NSW), $20.50 (Fremantle WA), $13 (Eldorado QLD) or $11 (Geelong VIC), or less for students or concession holders.

So, are those accessing unlawful online content simply unable to pay?

CCA research consistently indicates that persistent pirates are more likely to have a tertiary education and a full-time job than non-pirates. Piracy increases with greater income and education.

But few services face the insurmountable challenge of being unlawfully available, globally, to billions of consumers with an internet connection.

The numbers for online content theft dwarf those for other industries facing counterfeit and copyright concerns.

1.4 million Australians access Pirate Bay monthly. In 2016 Mad Max Fury Road was illegally downloaded 3.5 million times in Australia alone while the total (legal) unit sales of the Australian DVD and legal streams/downloads came in at just 516,396.

This is not simply an issue for international producers or Hollywood studios. This is a global concern that directly impacts many Australian creators. Seven months after it was released online and on DVD/Blu-ray®, Australian film The Dressmaker still registered over 140,000 illegal downloads in a week.

The creative industries need consumers, Government and media to recognise that a strong copyright system is essential to the health and vibrancy of the creative economy.

A report that relies on questionable research and clear bias, supports fallacious claims and is a threat to the hundreds of thousands of jobs, and thousands of businesses that depend on Intellectual Property, is not helpful.

Cartoon: Greg Holfeld


1 Consumer Survey on Online Copyright Infringement June 2016 – A marketing research report Prepared for the Dept. of Communications and the Arts by TNS

2 Creative Content Australia Research studies 2011-2016. Note: 2011 included physical (DVD) piracy. This measure was excluded from 2012 onwards.

3 Creative Content Australia Research studies 2011-2016.

4 Creative Content Australia Research 2016.

5 Creative Content Australia Research 2016.

6 Consumer Survey on Online Copyright Infringement June 2016 – A marketing research report Prepared for the Dept. of Communications and the Arts by TNS.

7 Creative Content Australia 2013 research.


Lori Flekser is the Executive Director of Creative Content Australia. After a long career in the Australian production industry, she is committed to raising awareness about the value of screen content, role of copyright and impact of piracy. http://www.creativecontentaustralia.org.au.

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