What kind of pirate are you: Justified, transgressor or just honest?

Ofcom has you pigeonholed

Analysis New research commissioned by UK uber-regulator Ofcom confirms that a tiny number of Brits are responsible for most of the copyright piracy in Blighty - and they're predominantly male and wealthy.

But you knew that already.

However, the ambitious study has tried something new. It attempted for the first time to create a field guide, or taxonomy, of digital copyright infringers - segmenting them into almost headline-friendly categories such as "digital transgressors" and "ambiguous infringers".

It is possible somebody at Kantar Media, which conducted the study for Ofcom, or at the watchdog itself, aspires to higher things: perhaps a gig at a large advertising agency where such imaginative market segmentation commands high fees from clients.

It's not clear whether this bizarre pigeonholing is what our politicians wanted after instructing Ofcom to produce regular reports into online copyright infringement, as part of the Digital Economy Act of 2010. But it's great fun nonetheless.

Kantar confirmed a tiny number of internet users do most of the pirating: just 1.6 per cent of UK internet users over the age of 12 form the top 10 per cent of all copyright infringers in the country, in terms of the amount of stuff downloaded: they're responsible for 79 per cent of infringements over a six-month period. Spreading the net wider, the top 20 per cent of downloaders by volume is made up of 3.2 per cent of the over-12 internet-connected population, who are responsible for 88 per cent of infringements.

The market research biz also confirmed that the heaviest copyright infringers are middle-class blokes under the age of 34 with decent jobs: the top 20 per cent of infringers "are more likely to be male, [aged] 16 to 34 and ABC1" than casual infringers or non-infringers, we learn.

This demographic is not so dissimilar to the slightly older "Fifty Quid A Week Bloke", a demographic tagged a few years ago as someone with discretionary spending who loves splurging it at the weekend on CDs and DVD box sets. Someone who places a high value on cultural stuff and has a high willingness to pay. Buying stuff is a way of treating yourself, a bit of retail therapy. Keep this in mind as it will become relevant as we continue.

The idea that piracy is a great white middle-class entitlement is not new. One satirical site identified it a few years ago, with white middle-class bloke described thus:

"He will proceed to walk you through the process of how record labels are set up to reward the corporation and fundamentally rob the artist of their rights, royalties and creativity. Prepare to hear the name Steve Albini a lot," Stuff White People Like noted five years ago.

Now comes the fun bit

Kantar Media segments the infringers into named segments:

  • Justifying infringers
    • 9 per cent of all digital pirates in UK
    • Responsible for 24 per cent of infringed volume
    • 2 per cent of all those who watch, read, listen or use digital stuff
  • Digital transgressors
    • 9 per cent of all digital pirates in UK
    • Responsible for 22 per cent of infringed volume
    • 2 per cent of all those who watch, read, listen or use digital stuff
  • Free infringers
    • 42 per cent of all digital pirates in UK
    • Responsible for 35 per cent of infringed volume
    • 10 per cent of all those who watch, read, listen or use digital stuff
  • Ambiguous infringers
    • 39 per cent of all digital pirates in UK
    • Responsible for 19 per cent of infringed volume
    • 9 per cent of all those who watch, read, listen or use digital stuff

The Free Infringers rip off stuff, we are told, because it's free, and they mostly download video games and software. They spend the least, and offer the fewest justifications. Philistines if you like - or maybe just honest. They don't feel infringement is socking it to the man.

Kantar/Ofcom are keen to promote the line that punters are horribly unclear and confused by what is legal, and what isn't. Ofcom actually chose to headline this detail of Kantar's last research - an editorial choice. Perhaps all this piracy goes on because punters don't know what is a legitimate, licensed site and what isn't?

But is it really so confusing? Here's a clue: the legal site is less likely to tout sex enhancement pills and videos of nude Ukrainian crack addicts. For everyone except Ofcom, blue tablets and sex cams are a reasonable indication that something is a little bit dodgy. Perhaps the clue even comes in the name, such as "The Pirate Bay". It would be great if UK taxpayers could, for once, get research that didn't insult our intelligence. Campbell Cowie, take note.

That's not the only subtle bit of direction attempted in the report.

Who's getting paid a decent wage? Hint: Not the musician

The segment labelled "transgressors" is said to be younger and many are in education, and they "showed the least remorse about infringing material, but also had the highest fear of getting caught".

Whereas the "justifying" freeloaders, who mostly download music, "felt they had spent enough on content already, and this sentiment was confirmed by their high total spend offline".

But is the "justifying" downloader truly justified? We know from elsewhere that he has a decent job, is higher up the social scale, and can pay - in a physical world he was a Fifty Quid A Week Bloke - someone who liked to spend because it was a treat. Once you bear that in mind, the reasons offered by Justified Man really do look like a great Middle-Class Whine.

Now recall that the justified downloader earns far more than the typical artist. The ABC1 category he belongs to encompasses "higher or intermediate managerial, administrative or professional jobs, down to supervisory or clerical, junior managerial, administrative or professional jobs". These are well-paid gigs. Contrast this with the lot of the creator, who makes the stuff that Justified Bloke downloads for free. 80 per cent of musicians in the UK earn less than £10,000 a year, while 95 per cent of songwriters and composers earn less than £15,000 in royalty income.

Ofcom/Kantar gives voice to Justified Man, inviting us to infer that digital cultural goods should be even cheaper. It even mulls an "optimum music price". Ofcom asked pirates what the price should be, and the answer will amaze you. Downloads and subscriptions should be even cheaper, the pirates replied.

To its credit, Kantar notes that "the claims people make when asked about their future likely behaviour given changes to their options do not always closely reflect their real-life behaviour". But Ofcom/Kantar is pretty selective about which claims it chooses to promote. And it chooses to promote a highly regressive model of society, in which the creators must get poorer, to satisfy the whining of "justified" middle-class pirates.

Dig deeper, and there's another curiosity

Kantar suggests that people who obtain TV shows, movies and games do so both through legal and unlicensed channels. People who don't spend less acquiring them. The top 20 per cent of infringers spent £168 over the six-month period on cultural goods, rather than £105 (bottom 80 per cent) and £54 non-infringers.

But when we look closely, we discover that Ofcom/Kantar's definition of legal "spending" is very broad. It actually includes spending on live concerts and T-shirts. This is not part of the digital economy, and a more meaningful exercise would be a like-for-like comparison on licensed and unlicensed consumption of the same stuff.

Similar correlations between infringement and legitimate consumption have been noted many times before, and the correlation is a politically charged one, with the "hug a Pirate" crowd inviting us to conclude that copyright enforcement actually harms the legitimate market. In fact, the opposite case can also be made: that any enforcement should focus on the hardcore few - by making the wealthy ABC1 Fifty Quid Bloke pay a bit more - rather than the casual or occasional downloader. People who really want the stuff should pay for it.

The difference between merchandise and gigs is that payment for them is not optional. A few people will blag their way onto a guest list, or jump over the fence, but for most people most of the time there's penalty to gatecrashing. For digital music, payment is largely optional. So in the absence of penalties or disincentives, it's quite natural to expect people to divert the share of their wallet that went on recorded media to live concerts instead.

One vast area is left unexplored by this work - quite strikingly - and it's whether consumer behaviour would change if this incentive structure was changed. Would Justified Man change his spending in response to copyright enforcement? Would he be a copyright martyr?

Would he risk a month of dialup speed internet - a punishment meted out by his ISP for sharing files unlawfully - in order to save a few quid? Given that we know he's fairly well off, it's doubtful - but we don't find out, because the questions are not asked.

The music and film industries made a catastrophic error a few years ago when they began to sue individual file sharers indiscriminately. Evidence of a handful of unlicensed downloads was enough to earn a lawsuit - and in the US system, the threat of punitive damages. It simply made the industries look like bullies, and they later acknowledged the mistake, introducing a graduated response to digital pirating instead. Under such a system, only serial piss-takers earn a counter measure.

The reasoning is that most people would value continued full-speed internet access than saving a few quid.

In 2010 Ofcom was given a democratic mandate to reduce digital copyright infringement by putting into practice a gradual system to punish repeat file-sharers: to regulate the "stick" that goes with the "carrot" of licensed digital services.

You'd never guess that from this report, though. Everything is on the table, except enforcement against copyright infringers itself. Even though Brit pirates have said in earlier surveys that they favour stronger penalties for fellow file-sharers, The Great Middle Class Whine - how it's somehow OK to download supposedly overpriced material - is given a voice, and amplified, by Ofcom. ®

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