Ofcom Copyright Infringement Research

Over the past year, Ofcom have commissioned a series of research studies into online copyright infringement. They and the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) held a workshop to present the results of these and other studies and to consider what continuing research is needed to provide an evidence base for future policy in the area of intellectual property.

Ofcom’s study used four waves of interviews, both face-to-face and on-line, to estimate how many infringers there are, how much they infringe, whether particular groups are more likely to infringe, how they infringe, where, what their reasons are for infringing and how this might be reduced. The study looked at different types of online media, including music, film, TV, and e-books. More than half of all internet users in the UK have downloaded or streamed one or more of these in the past year, spending on average £77 each. Around 29% have accessed one or more unlicensed files, most of these access a mix of licensed and unlicensed content. Across all downloads and streams, 22% of music files, 35% of film and 13% of books are thought to be infringing.

However infringement is far from evenly spread: 10% of infringers (i.e. 2% of internet users) are responsible for 74% of infringements. Most of these only infringe in one type of media and, at least for music and TV, they also spend significantly more than the average on their interest. The top 10% of infringers’ average spend in the year was £847. This group are also significantly more likely to use wifi and mobile networks outside their homes, suggesting that they are more technically skilled.

Survey participants were asked what would make them stop infringing. The top five aspects all relate to dissatisfaction with existing licensed sources: cost, availability of desired material and convenience. There was also considerable uncertainty about which services were legal and what could lawfully be done with content once it had been obtained. Notification or technical measures, as foreseen by the Digital Economy Act, were said to be significantly less likely to change behaviour.

The inconvenience of obtaining content lawfully was confirmed by examples from Further Education Colleges, who have to deal with twelve different licensing bodies for fourteen different types of copyright (two of these have recently concluded an agreement), and from popular TV series where different viewing dates in different countries create a strong incentive for even otherwise law-abiding communities to engage in widespread infringement. The recent release of all episodes of House of Cards simultaneously and globally on Netflix is an interesting approach.

Evidence gathered by the Industry Trust for IP Awareness to support its education programmes on film copyright appears to support Ofcom’s findings. They found considerable confusion around newer on-line services that were not associated with a recognisable ‘high street’ name. While survey participants were confident that iPlayer and iTunes were lawful, there was much less confidence about Blinkbox (which is). They also suggest that piracy may be habitual: once a customer has had to go to an unlicensed site to get one music track, film or TV programme, they may well continue to use it even for content that could be obtained lawfully. It struck me that one effect of blocking injunctions might be to make these lost customers available again to licensed services?

The Industry Trust data agree with Ofcom’s that high infringers are also film fans; their education campaigns therefore seek to inspire infringers rather than tell them off. Their trailers for new films incorporate messages that this is “worth paying for” and promote as “All films; All in one place; All above board”. There are excellent examples on their website. A simulation of consumer behaviour indicates that a long-term education campaign can be effective in suppressing infringing but on its own cannot stop it. The move from watching films on DVD to streaming is seen as both an opportunity to reduce infringing behaviour, because subscription services can offer convenience and (once you have watched enough to cover your subscription) effectively free viewing, and a risk because it will require all viewers to adopt the equipment and skills that will enable them to move to unlicensed sites if lawful services do not satisfy demand. With at least 15 million people expected to move to streaming services by the end of 2015 it is vital that this audience is not lost.

It was agreed that Ofcom’s series of surveys have provided a strong evidence base. Their raw data from 20,000 interviews will be made available for further analysis. With that series now at an end, the challenge is how to continue and enhance this type of evidence gathering. Ofcom noted that their survey left unanswered questions around other content types, which locations and networks are used to infringe, what the effect of sanctions would be, and how to improve understanding of lawful behaviour. Some of these cannot be addressed by surveys but will need combined approaches including measurement and behavioural economics. The IPO are developing a revised version of their good practice guide to collecting evidence. However a review of current evidence-gathering by industry indicates that it is more likely to be focused on specific, ad hoc, issues rather than fitting into a framework for an Ofcom-style analysis of trends and changing behaviours over time. Finding the resources and skills to bridge this gap appears to be a significant challenge for the industry and the IPO.

By Andrew Cormack

I'm Chief Regulatory Advisor at Jisc, responsible for keeping an eye out for places where our ideas, services and products might raise regulatory issues. My aim is to fix either the product or service, or the regulation, before there's a painful bump!

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