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Piracy in Developing Countries

“The elephant in the room” they thought was piracy

Joe Karaganis, of the Social Science Research Council, is giving a talk at the Berkman Center on a six-country study on media (music, film and software) piracy. The study began in 2004 and should be available in March.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.“The elephant in the room” they thought was piracy. Previous studies on access to media tended to avoid the issue of piracy. “The media ecology is still an ecology of piracy.” “We saw a role for a broader social-scientific approach to these issues.” The point of diminishing returns had passed for increasing the strength of IP laws, he says, so countries have been focusing on enforcement. “We began to frame a project that would ask a different set of questions.” It wanted to look not only the costs of piracy, but also at the benefits especially in developing countries. At first, they were more interested in skeptically examining industry reports, but many others started doing this, so it became less of a focus. They’ve tried to separate piracy and counterfeiting, which are usually considered together, because “they have less and less to do with each other in actual practice.”

Three areas of research:

Pricing: The persistence of high and relatively uniform media prices in the developing world; the industry wants to protect the value of their goods in Western markets rather than worrying about making it available in the developing world. Uniform and high prices plus poverty is pretty much the recipe for piracy.

The structure of policymaking: The primary role of the RIAA is to filter info about piracy into the US Trade Representatives and other policy-making organizations, through the IIPA. The IIPA has stimulated many studies on piracy globally and ahs set the terms of the debate.

The organization of enforcement.

Joe shows a table of prices of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida in six countries. The legal price ranges from $8.50 in India to $20.50 in S. Africa (US dollars), but compared to the local incomes, the price is $760 in India and a “mere” $75 in Mexico. But the pirate price in India is $0.40-$1.2, with a corresponding drop in the price compared to local income. The prices are much lower for legal copies of domestically-produced CDs. Same is true for movie DVDs. Where a local company owns its distribution, the prices tend to compete with pirates. Joe says that over the past 10 years, the price of pirated copies has dropped to very close to marginal prices. We’re at a transitional moment, he says, to purely digital media.

He shows a chart of the structure of policy-making organizations, with industry associations feeding into the IIPA, which hands them off to the USTR, which then passes them through 85% of the time. Joe says the study has spent a lot of time unpacking the IIPA’s annual table of losses due to piracy in multiple countries; the data is opaque, although it’s becoming less so. (The IIPA does not compile info about the US.) The table shows “levels,” i.e., what percentage of media in a country are pirated. In Argentina, it’s 75% of business sw. In Brunei, it’s 100% of music.

A questioner points out that not every pirated work would have been purchased if it could not be pirated. Joe says the report goes into the methodological terrain pretty deeply. But, he says, “the default is secrecy” in these reports. “All of this is a black box, and very deliberately so.” He says that their credibility has so eroded that they’d do better to become more transparent.

The USTR can put you on a watch list, priority watch list, and a priority foreign country list “which is a fast track to sanctions.” The acceptance of the WTO, however, meant that sanctions could not be applied to WTO members (because it requires multilateral processes), so the sanctioned countries graph flatlined. The number of warnings, however, went up.

There are few prosecutions in most countries, but lots of raids to confiscate goods. The raids become the punishment. “The industry groups have successfully enlisted the police” but have run into obstacles on the judicial end. In the few cases that can be prosecuted, there are “spectacular punishments.” There has been competition for enforcement resources among companies that have access to them. The industry is so woven into the enforcement process, they can direct and even fund the raids. “There’s just no boundary between public and private power.” Film companies are the best at deploying state resources. The demand for enforcement gives rise to business models, starting with bribing the police, to blackmailing people who have been detected with infringing materials.

Q: Is it understood by the populace that they’re doing something illegal?
A: Yes, but it’s an everyday activity.
Q: Are people worried about being caught?
A: Other countries than the US don’t focus on consumer-level enforcement.
Q: In my country people don’t know it’s illegal.
A: In our research, there’s usually no ambiguity. The lower price is the figure.

Q: Correlations?
A: There are loose correlations between GDP and piracy, but they vary according to media type. The content business model is to keep prices high and just wait it out for incomes to go up. Of course, the price of tech is dropping faster than income is growing.

Piracy is de-formalizing, he says. It’s no longer the small storefront. It’s the street vendor and others less vulnerable to raids. Enforcement against retail optical disk sales has worked. But that just pushed it out into the street.

Q: Do the charts include works that are distributed as unlicensed as intended?
A: It’s a black box.

Q: Do people have a reason to buy legal works for anything except fear of enforcement?
A: There’s no fear of enforcement. People buy legal works only for other reasons. In several of the countries, there are home-grown enforcement campaigns that come from domestic artists.

Q: What will be the take-away of the report?
A: It won’t be liked by industry lobbyists because it departs from the theft narrative that has defined the debate. It’s written from the perspective of the developing economies, where the reasons and conditions for piracy are just not part of the piracy of debate. You never hear about problems of pricing, for example. Our goal is to encourage developing cvountries to ssert more control over their IP policies and enforcement in order to enrich their own culture.
Q: Is there anything a developing country can do about pricing?
A: Depends on the sector. E.g., the biz sw strategy is to allow rampant priacy to ensure universal adoption, and then they begin to enforce against the most vulnerable institutions: municipal gov’ts, etc. What’s the source of open source platforms here? Most govts have no demonstrated any consistent open source adoption strategy. A lot of half-baked strategies, but few fully implemented ones. But that seems to be an adequate outcome. They want a ubiquitous platform of supported sw, which they get with pirated copies of Windows and MS Office. The OS advocates are often being gamed by MSFT’s high-level strategy. “This is an optimal strategy for the software companies. Microsoft wouldn’t have it any other way.” The enforcement rhetoric doesn’t match the sw companies’ strategies. MSFT could enforce Windows 7 piracy in China, but if they did, Linux would be the standard overnight. They’re still growing 30%. If you’re an open sw advocate, piracy is a real problem [because it lets countries use Microsoft for free]. The President of Romania in 2007 at a press conf with Bill Gates in 2007 said that piracy is part of their relationship with MSFT. [It's a national freemimum policy - dw]

By the way, Joe says, they’ve found no connections between piracy and drug trafficking, prostitution, organized crime, or terrorism. There are little overlaps but nothing systematic. This is despite industry claims that piracy funds organized crime and terrorism.

Joe points to the famous Jack Valenti quote that the VCR is to the US film industry what the Boston strangler is to a woman at home alone. [God bless Valenti! We miss you, Jack! - dw] On the other hand, Robert Bauer of the MPA has said (Joe says) that we should treat piracy as a signal of unmet demand and that the task is then to “find a way to meet that demand.”

Q: To what are things like Blu Ray an attempt to stay a step ahead of pirates?
A: It recreates scare production, and thus the conditions for smuggling-based pirate economies. There are always opportunities for that to re-emerge. Blu Ray at the moment has no impact on the markets we looked at.

More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog ( He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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