A new survey of 2,047 Brits indicates the majority believe that warning letters will have no impact on internet piracy. The survey was commissioned by ISP comparison website Broadband Genie and asked internet users what they thought of the UK’s Voluntary Copyright Alert Programme (VCAP), which seeks to discourage piracy by telling ISP customers when their service has been used to violate copyright. As reported previously, the UK’s four biggest ISPs have agreed that electronic ‘letters’ will be emailed to customers whose broadband service has been used for P2P file-sharing of copyrighted content. Of the respondents to the Broadband Genie survey, only 28 percent thought these letters would lead people to stop accessing or sharing copyrighted material.
The publicity for the VCAP scheme has not reached many people. 82 percent of those surveyed said they had not heard of it. In many respects this should be seen as a dismal failure by the anti-piracy brigade and their supporters in government. VCAP has been in the pipeline since 2010, when the Labour government forced the Digital Economy Act through parliament, the last act they passed before losing the subsequent election. This ‘voluntary’ programme is a watered-down version of the provisions in the Digital Economy Act, which was passed into law but never implemented in actual practice. Partly this reflects the cunning of Conservative politicians. Instead of making themselves unpopular with kids through heavy-handed punishments, the Conservatives have cajoled ISPs into volunteering to send warnings, meaning the private sector will deal with angry customers whilst politicians take the credit when speaking to big media corporations. The politicians have also been helped by the transformation of the business landscape since 2010; most of the ISPs that volunteered for VCAP have significantly increased their investment in buying or making content.
Internet piracy is far from new, and it is widespread, but much of the public remain woefully or willfully ignorant of the rules. 22 percent failed to state it was unlawful to download content without the permission of the owner. On the other hand, 39 percent said it was unlawful to use peer-to-peer networking like BitTorrent, without recognizing that it is the content which determines if there was any wrongdoing, and that lots of content is in the public domain. Most worryingly for telcos and OTT content providers will be the revelation that only 35 percent thought it was unlawful to exploit a friend’s account to access Spotify, Netflix, or another content streaming service.
I was surprised by how many respondents said they knew somebody who had already received a warning letter. Per Broadband Genie:
3.5% of respondents said they or someone they knew had received a warning notice so far. But nearly half of those said the notice was in error due to incorrect details, their belief that the content or provider was legal or a lack of knowledge about any file sharing having taken place.
I agree with the analysis of Broadband Genie’s Head of Strategy, Rob Hilborn, who argues that ISP warning letters will have little impact on the many people who knowingly choose to download and share copyrighted content. However, I was surprised when he also argued:
The age old excuse of legal content being too expensive is less relevant these days. Services such as Netflix, Amazon Instant and Spotify have done a lot to drive down costs. There’s also a movement towards one month contracts, so in most cases it’s fairly simple to chop-and-change to get the content you want.
That sounds like wishful thinking rather than current reality. The media landscape is increasingly being carved up into small fiefdoms. If you watch Top Gear you have to pay for a BBC licence, but if you want the real Top Gear you have to buy it from Amazon. If you want one football match you must pay Sky, whilst the next football match must be purchased from BT. This year’s must-see blockbuster film may only be screened by Netflix, whilst your favourite TV show is exclusive to Hulu. It is fanciful to suggest that customers will find it easy to ‘chop and change’ contracts to get all the content they want at a price they are willing to pay. The market is increasingly divided into smaller and smaller chunks. This makes it unlikely that customers can get everything they want whilst paying less than before. And once the customer is tempted to use piracy to view one particular show they will be less inhibited about using piracy to view all of them.
It is also worth mentioning that surveys tell us how people think they will behave, not how they will really behave. Perhaps the recipients of warning letters will be far more scared than they expect, and so will speedily abandon piracy. Or maybe most people will just remain ignorant of the law, and so break it without a moment’s hesitation. Either way, the optimal revenue collection strategy for internet suppliers of film, TV, game and music content is going to have to be continuously recalibrated to take into account the actual levels of piracy, the punishments and incentives that might discourage copyright infringement, public perceptions of morality, and the corresponding strategies of competitors. Both technology and persuasion will be important to maximizing the revenues collected, and we all have much to learn.
You can find all the results of the Broadband Genie survey by looking here.