The only way to stop piracy is to cut prices. That's the verdict of a major new academic study that reckons copyright theft won't be halted by 'three strikes' broadband disconnections, increasing censorship or draconian new laws brought in under the anti-counterfeiting treaty ACTA.
The Media Piracy Project, published last week by the Social Science Research Council, reports that illegal copying of movies, music, video games and software is "better described as a global pricing problem" - and the only way to tackle it is for copyright holders to charge consumers less money for their wares.
The three-year study into media piracy in emerging economies concentrated on countries such as Russia, Mexico and India, where piracy is endemic.
The academics concluded that societies where piracy is rife are no more immoral, or less willing to pay for content - the problem is that in those parts of the world, legitimate CDs, DVDs and software are five to ten times higher relative to local incomes than they are in the US and Europe.
No amount of anti-piracy enforcement will change the economics that drive copyright theft, say the report's authors. They claim to have seen, "little evidence - and indeed few claims - that enforcement efforts to date have had any effect whatsoever on the overall supply of pirated goods. Our work suggests, rather, that piracy has grown dramatically by most measures in the past decade."
In developed economies, prices for content are driven down by a thriving market of suppliers who compete on price. In many emerging economies, films and other copyright material are distributed by large multinationals who often operate near-monopoly control of the local market.
They cite the example of Russia, where legal versions of the film The Dark Knight sold for $15 - roughly the same price that consumers would pay in the US. But with wages much lower in Russia, that price represents a much higher percentage of consumers' income - the equivalent of a US buyer shelling out something like $75 on the film. Pirate versions, says the report, can be obtained for less than a third of the price.
The report condemns what it calls the "strong moralization of the debate" about an issue that the authors claim is really a matter of price and consumer demand.
Interestingly, the report itself is distributed under a 'Consumer's Dilemma' licence that charges $8 to residents of 'high-income' countries - but offers it free for non-commercial use everywhere else.