For Americans, digital piracy is a family thing

When it comes to the copyright protections on digital material, a lot of Americans are scofflaws.

About 46 percent of adults say they’ve bought, copied or downloaded pirated music, movies or TV shows, and the number grows to 70 percent for 18-29 year olds, according to a survey by the American Assembly, a public affairs forum affiliated with Columbia University.

But although a majority the 2,300 adults in the survey describe sharing files among family and friends as “reasonable,” an even greater majority opposes wide-scale distribution of copyrighted material for commercial gain, according to the survey, which was conducted in August 2011 by Princeton Research and funded by a research award from Google.


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Within their personal circles, the survey respondents see sharing copyrighted material as OK— 75 percent say it’s fine to share music with family and 56 approve of sharing music with friends. For movies, the numbers are 70 percent for family and 54 percent for friends.

And people do seem to keep their piracy small-scale, the survey found. Only 2 percent had large collections of pirated music (defined in the survey as 1,000 or more files) and 1 percent had large collections of movies (100 files or more).

But significant majorities oppose large-scale, commercial distribution of copyrighted material. Only 16 percent say it’s reasonable to post copyrighted files to sites where they’re open to being downloaded; 8 percent approve of posting links to pirated files on Facebook or similar sites; and 6 percent favor selling illegal copies.

On the user level, respondents favored light punishments for violations, or none at all  — only 52 percent support penalties for downloading copyrighted material, and most of them say penalties should be limited to warnings and fines.

A majority of people say they oppose stiffer penalties such as bandwidth throttling or disconnection from the Internet (72 percent opposed), and likewise oppose monitoring Internet activity or blocking sites that also have legal content.

The opinions expressed in the survey seem to express a divided support for copyright-protection efforts such as the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate, which would establish strict punishments for websites that engage in copyright infringement.

SOPA, for instance, would bar search engines from linking to fraudulent sites, require online service providers to block them, and prevent online business from dealing with them.

Respondents were opposed, 69 percent to 27 percent, to monitoring the Internet to prevent copyright infringement, the survey found.

On the question of blocking sites, they survey report states that answers depended somewhat on the wording of the question — although in every case, a majority said blocking should be done by a service provider, not the government.

Asked if IPSs should block access to sites tracking in pirated songs and videos, 58 percent said yes, and 36 percent said no. When asked if government should do the blocking, 40 percent said yes, 56 percent no.

Support for blocking sites fell when the survey used “censor” in the questions instead of “block” — 46 percent said ISPs should censor such sites, 49 percent said no. Only 33 percent said government should censor those sites, 64 percent said no.

One way the owners of copyrighted materials can prevent pirating could be in finding easy, affordable ways for people to buy their music, movies and videos. Of the survey respondents who said they had pirated music, 46 percent said they do it less often since inexpensive streaming services came on the scene. Among those who had pirated movies, 40 percent said they’re doing it less often.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is editor of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMcCaney.

Reader Comments

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 Cap'n Audiophile

Once upon a time, when I bought a licorice pizza, anybody in the house could play it, I could loan it or even give it away to anybody I wanted to, even trade it in or sell it if I really didn't like it. I could even make a magnetic tape copy or two to share, or keep in the car, or play endlessly, so I wouldn't wear my "master copy" out quite so quickly. The corporate overlords considered that "piracy" - but in the end it really worked more like word-of-mouth advertising and increased sales, so nobody made much of a big deal about it. Now that music is almost exclusively digital, the overlards want to shut all that free advertising down because the profit margins are thinner...and the response has been a huge shift to direct producer-to-consumer marketing, bypassing the "music publishers" altogether. They made a bad decision in a free market - let 'em swing.

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