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Research unclear on why people share files; whether it's economically harmful

Consumers copying and sharing digital files have been blamed for a potentially catastrophic decline in certain markets. But why do consumers copy? And is it as economically harmful as often thought? CREATe, the Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy, says it has put a decade of evidence to the test by reviewing studies published between 2003 and 2013.

Professor Daniel Zizzo, an economist at the University of East Anglia, is co-author of the recent study. He said the research revealed that "current knowledge of file sharing is dramatically skewed by sector and method."

Applying techniques "normally used in the medical sciences," articles on unlawful file sharing for digital media were methodically searched in academic databases, while non-academic literature was sought from "key stakeholders" and research centres. Over 54,000 sources were initially found and these were narrowed down to 206 articles which examined human behaviour, intentions or attitudes.

"Most evidence is based on the unlawful file sharing of music, which has been subjected to far more research than movies and software, which themselves have been studied far more than videogames, books or TV," says Zizzo. ?This means there is a real risk of designing policy which meets the needs of a specific industry, possibly at the expense of other creative industries which are less well represented in the literature. Also, the economic effects found in one medium may not apply to another and current knowledge of file sharing is dramatically skewed by method.

"The evidence on societal costs points in conflicting directions and our study shows that the impact of illegal downloading and file sharing remains unclear. Focusing on 'lost sales,' and examining people's hypothetical willingness to pay with and without the possibility of unlawful file sharing is insufficient. Regarding determinants of unlawful file sharing, there are many studies on self-reported attitudes, but few studies that observe behaviour. This is a problem, particularly as there is often a gap in findings between studies that use behaviour and studies that do not."

The author says that an important contribution of the new study is the identification of five testable reasons (or 'Utilities') why consumer copy: (a) Financial and Legal Utility (this is where the enforcement debate traditionally focused: "you can't compete with free"); (b) Experiential Utility (unlawful file sharing may be influenced by a desire to sample new content, to access niche content, or to build a collection); (c) Technical Utility (content is easier to access unlawfully); (d) Social Utility (it appears to matter what our peers do: a kind of herding effect); (e) Moral Utility (this perhaps motivates policy makers? emphasis on the education of consumers).

A commonly-held belief is that unlawful file sharing costs the creative economy billions of pounds every year. But according to Professor Martin Kretschmer, Professor of Intellectual Property Law at the University of Glasgow, and Director of CREATe, "legislating without understanding behaviour produces lop-sided policies. The most useful evidence increases our understanding of how to turn infringers into customers."

The academics devised a cube graphic (below) that illustrates the key findings of the study in relation to the determinants of unlawful file sharing.

Based on the information released on the report an observer ironised that, irrespective of the psychological disposition of a car thief, the rightful owner is still left without his car?

Story filed 13.04.14

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