Piracy will destroy the earth

An hysterical study released by the International Chamber of Commerce warns that 1.2 million people will soon find themselves out of work as a direct result of copyright theft.

We hesitate to use the word 'piracy' because apparently that's too sexy and makes spotty teenage boys downloading a crappy MP3 rip of Lady Gaga's latest slab of overtly-sexualised pap-pop for pre-teens feel all swashbuckly... a bit like Johnny Depp.

The ICC's Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy initiative (BASCAP) has published a dire warning that more than a million people in the creative industries will be tramping the streets looking for work because of piracy.

"Digital piracy is sweeping through global markets for music, motion pictures and video, television programming, literature and software," said Jeffrey Hardy from the ICC. "In its wake, these creative industries suffer devastating economic losses and an assault on their ability to compensate artists and furnish legitimate employment opportunities. These dire consequences call for an urgent response by policymakers, consumers and the creative industry itself," he added.

In 2008 a similar study insisted that the TV, music and software industries had shed 185,000 jobs as a direct result of €10 billion in losses attributable to piracy.

Now, it's a very long time since we were at school, but in maths classes we were always told to show our working out.

Spouting meaningless figures is dangerous and irresponsible. It can lead to fear and instability in a world already beleaguered by the deepest recession for many generations.

There's no doubt that piracy is having a detrimental impact on many industries, but the ones who are suffering the most are those who have buried their heads in the sand for two decades and are now relying on heavy-handed lawyers and ill-informed government lobbyists to crack down on downloaders rather than getting to the root of the problem.

But the biggest issue here is still the maths. All of these neurotic surveys with their unrestrained headlines and doom-laden bottom lines are based on mathematical and social suppositions so flawed as to make them utterly useless.

But because anti-piracy advocates are unwilling, or unable, to make clear how they came to these apocalyptic conclusions, we can only assume that their findings are, at best artificially inflated, and at worst fraudulently fabricated.

The most misleading surveys make assumptions based on meaningless numbers supplied by rights holders. For example, a theoretical record company may report that one of its latest releases has been illegally downloaded a million times. At an average download cost of 80p, 30p of which will go to iTunes or whoever is hosting the material, that means the record company has lost £500,000.

Multiply that by the thousands upon thousands of tracks sloshing about on P2P servers or binary newsgroups or any one of a dozen other nefarious sources of illegal downloadery, and you can see why industry whistle-blowers can come with such high numbers. Add in all of the movie, TV and software downloads and the associated fiduciary losses and the numbers become truly frightening.

But these numbers are, in the end, all about fear. If you can persuade policy makers that millions of people will be out of a job if they don't crack down on piracy, they are much more likely to do something about it than if you tell them Robbie Williams won't be able to fill his moat with Crystal this year because of copyright infringement.

The simple fact of the matter is that, for the vast majority of illegal downloads, no matter how prevalent and extensive they are, Big Media is not making a tangible financial loss.

Most freeloaders now have access to fast broadband connections and massive hard drives. The days when a casual pirate would search for specific tracks or movies on P2P aggregators like Limewire or Napster are over. Downloaders are more likely to grab hundreds if not thousands of files at a time. It's not uncommon for entire back catalogs to be lumped into gargantuan 'floods', containing dozens if not hundreds of individual files. Most will spend a few weeks languishing on a hard drive, unloved and unlistened to before being unceremoniously consigned to the digital trash can.

A tiny fraction of those will actually find their way into permanent collections or be listened to more than once. And this is where the hysterical application of inaccurate maths models falls over.

Put simply, the vast majority of people who download copyrighted material would never have paid for it had it not been freely and easily available. If there's no potential sale, there's no financial loss.

This is of course, just one tiny part of a very large picture. There's little doubt that mass DVD piracy has inextricable links to some pretty dodgy organised crime outfits. Anyone daft enough to buy a shaky camcordered copy of the latest cinema blockbuster from the little Chinese guy down the pub on a Saturday afternoon is probably funding the activities of some pretty unpleasant people.

But studies have shown that people who illegally download music are, for the most part doing so in order to inform their buying decisions. The days when a band could release a dreadful album sold on the back of slick marketing and on the strength one decent track are over thanks to the democratising affect of the Internet.

It has also been shown that people who illegally download music spend twice as much on legitimate downloads and CDs than their law-abiding peers.

Similarly, the gaming industry is on notice not because the games pirates are preventing sales by supplying people with cracked copies of the software, but because the games buying public has developed its own, albeit illegal, try-before-you-buy infrastructure. And games like James Cameron's dreadful Avatar are consigned to the bargain bin of gaming history not because it was pirated out of existence, but because it was utterly awful. No amount of marketing could have saved that dead dog from the pirate peer-review process.

If you want a true indication of how piracy is impacting on the games industry, you should simply look at the top three consoles.

Both the Wii and the Xbox have long been cracked wide open allowing anyone willing to have a footle about under the bonnet to download and play wallet-worryingly expensive games without contributing to the company coffers.

The Playstation3, on the other hand, resolutely refuses to give in to the hackers and crackers and, as of yet, can not be used to play pirated games.

But it still seems to be selling OK.