Friday, May 13, 2011

Media Piracy in Emerging Economies

Social Science Research Council, Media Piracy in Emerging Economies: I took extensive notes for my own future reference, so this is long.  Thanks for Sean Flynn for promoting it!

An extremely interesting study of piracy, defined as large-scale unauthorized reproduction both for profit and via free downloads, around the world. The authors conclude that piracy is largely a problem of a globalized Euro-American entertainment/industrial complex that has successfully generated demand for its products but unsuccessfully served that demand at prices people in other countries can pay, largely from refusal to price copies so they’d take roughly the same amount of purchasing power in poor nations. One example: converting prices as a percentage of per capita income, a Dark Knight DVD sold in India would cost $663 in the US; A Beautiful Mind would cost $421.

In part this is from fear of spillover to developed economies, in part resistance to lowering prices, in part inability to navigate the complicated informal economies of many of these nations. For software, piracy also helps keep open source software from competing with proprietary software, splitting the market into a formal sector with high prices and site licenses and an informal sector always at risk of prosecution but facing cheap prices. (See: “Free software in India means Microsoft Windows.”) The detailed case studies are fascinating, and generally conclude that enforcement is not the issue, given how persistent piracy is and how many other law enforcement priorities (e.g., violent crime) exist: the issue is serving the market with legitimate and acceptably priced copies.

The authors conclude that copyright education campaigns are useless because consumers aren’t ignorant, but rather like their cheap copies: “The consumer surplus generated by piracy is not just popular but also widely understood in economic-justice terms, mapped to perceptions of greedy US and multinational corporations and to the broader structural inequalities of globalization in which most developing-world consumers live. Enforcement efforts, in turn, are widely associated with US pressure on national governments and are met with indifference or hostility by large majorities of respondents.”

The spread of high bandwidth also has implications for the understandings of piracy and enforcement. Consumers aren’t so much collectors, as is generally imagined, because collections are so big that they really can’t be and aren’t curated. I was surprised to read that a UK survey found that the average digital library contained 8,000 songs, with 1,800 on the average iPod, most of which (2/3 in another study) had never been listened to. (True confessions: I’m kind of obsessive about my music, and I have 6,000 songs on my big computer, all of which have been listened to, though some only 5 times.) The study points out that readily available invitation-only sharing sites make it even harder to say what an individual’s collection size really is, even for the individual herself. Hard copies, however, remain important where broadband is limited, and CDs and DVDs circulate widely among poor people, serving a household or multiple households. Moreover, legitimate originals are still high-status forms of showing wealth or as the polite form for gifts. The authors argue that enforcement debates have ignored all these complexities in favor of a focus on the individual consumer as collector, “making deliberate choices to purchase, or pirate, specific goods for personal use.”

The time delay in getting licensed versions to other areas of the globe is, like price, a driver of piracy, along with what I learned to call fansubbing (though here often done for profit). “[G]lobal media cultures and global marketing efforts outstrip nationally bounded, time-delayed distribution channels.” There are anime fansubs, Bollywood subs for African and Asian audiences, and even a Brazilian site that distributes only subtitle files, producing a complete Portuguese version of Lost four hours after the US premiere. National torrent sites serve particular languages, with many users of DesiTorrents in India or in Russia coming from diasporic communities, “who often live in high-bandwidth countries with limited access to music, television, and movies from home.”

There are multiple case studies, each of which offers its own insights. Local variation matters even as broader patterns appear.

For example, Brazil: though Brazil is a leading international voice for users’ rights, internally it’s much more complicated. “Domestic compliance enables Brazil’s progressive international role. Brazil can stand up in favor of the Development Agenda, in part, because it has appeased industry demands at home.” Cities are trying to formalize their informal sectors, which has big implications for tax/public order. Regulating piracy is a part and a consequence of that. Brazil also has a robust debate about academic book copying, with strong assertions by some universities of broad copying rights especially of books without authorized Brazilian distribution. “[W]here most university and publisher groups have sought to compromise—rhetorically, if not always in practice—the Brazilian situation is distinctive for having devolved into a serious and ongoing conflict.” There is serious public sentiment, as in the other Central/Latin American countries surveyed, that IP favors rich countries and people over poor ones and that piracy is a reasonable response.

In Russia, an authoritarian state favors centralized pirates and uses crackdowns to consolidate political and economic power, crushing the smaller pirates who can’t afford to pay off the police and allowing the price of pirate DVDs to stay relatively high. And, as has been reported, since rates of software piracy are so high, almost any person or institution is vulnerable to prosecution at the hands of a biased state, ultimately leading Microsoft to grant a blanket license to Russian activists and media so as not to be complicit in politically motivated prosecutions.

In Mexico, street vendors have a long history of political alliances that often effectively push back against antipiracy efforts. Meanwhile, the internet, while still relatively limited for direct-to-consumer copying, has disintermediated copying for low-level sellers, giving them direct access to the sources and reducing their need for distributors.

The chapter on Bolivia had a lot about local production, which involves new, low-cost local labels taking advantage of the declining cost of recording tech. These labels sell at very low prices that can compete with pirate products, but they neither pay taxes nor register recordings with performers’ rights organization. Some originated with (and some remain implicated in) pirate production as a source of capital. Thus, new music releases in Bolivia have increased even though the formal market has collapsed due to piracy and a number of internationally known groups have stopped recording for the domestic market. Profits are low, and artists have to take on a lot of costs and risks, which is mostly worth it to promote live performances. Successful pirate producers may want to go legit; the authors suggest that “the move from the informal to the formal economy is an important and widely held aspiration” in Bolivia generally.

Separately, the chapter discusses piracy of non-Bolivian music and video, which often includes “a new, color printed cover (lámina) by Peruvian graphic artists, using elements from the original cover or video images.” This is a contrast to other markets in which pirates favor artwork identical to that of the original, and the authors call it out as an element of creativity in the pirate distribution chain.

India: India has a particularly robust domestic content industry with its own interests, unlike many of the nations subject to IP arm-twisting by the US and Europe. “The gap between high-priced international media goods and very low-priced pirated goods is filled, in India, by Indian companies. The resulting turmoil around distribution and pricing resembles the current upheavals in the US and European markets, where the rollout of low-cost digital media services is throwing older business models into crisis—and a difficult process of reinvention.” This dynamism, the authors argue, makes India unique and suggests that the resolution will/must come through low-cost legal alternatives. Whereas pirate Hollywood movies cost ten times less than legit ones, pirate Bollywood movies may cost only half as much, and that’s enough to make the legit market much more successful. Indian content companies are also highly decentralized, compared to the consolidated Western competitors/potential allies, and so is enforcement. The report also notes that Bollywood movies have relatively extensive international markets, but very little enforcement outside India, even in places like South Africa where there have been general crackdowns on piracy.

And then there’s this instance of fans as enforcers: “Movie star fan clubs are important units of political organization in India, particularly in the south, where film culture and politics routinely mix. … In recent years, the clubs have also become involved in policing video piracy. … There have also been instances where members of fan clubs attacked video pirates and forced them to close up shop. … Although fan club surveillance is not a very effective form of enforcement, it is highly visible and provides the only grass-roots manifestation of the wider corporate culture of enforcement. None of the fan club efforts, however, have moved beyond the protection of the work of particular stars.”

Or if you like to chuckle at the ironies of software piracy:
In 2004, Microsoft sponsored an anti-piracy workshop at the prestigious National Law School in Bangalore to “sensitize” members of the judiciary to issues of software piracy. At the end of the workshop, company representatives offered to declare the law school a “piracy-free zone.” A subsequent software audit, however, revealed that only a handful of faculty members used licensed software. The company responded by offering a bulk license to the university at a discounted rate. The discounted price, however, still nearly equaled the annual budget of the library and was rejected by the university. After the university signaled that it would switch to open-source software, the company issued it a free blanket license—and “piracy-free” status.
The India chapter is also the only one to mention the rise of the mobile phone (600 million users in India) as a major source of mp3 piracy as well as now half of the legit music market.

The authors of that chapter (who include the provocative Lawrence Liang) emphasize that “the digital media revolution in India is not only a story about expanded opportunities for consumption, or corporate strategies for securing the distribution channel. It is also a story about the vast democratization of media production. Filmmaking, in particular, is no longer an elite industry practice, but an increasingly popular art form that circulates outside the traditional industry channels. Pirate and grey-market practices have been essential to participation and education in these contexts, both for artists and audiences.” They want to make clear that this is not a marginal experience for Indians: “Most independent media artists in India begin their careers in some close relationship to copyright infringement. The basic facts of low incomes and high prices make it impossible to avoid this pattern.” Making music requires software, unaffordable in the legitimate market; learning about film means watching VCR copies.

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