Is piracy ‘good’ or ‘bad’? – guest post by Steven Brown

Steven Brown is a Doctoral Research Student at Glasgow Caledonian University, Scotland. His mixed-methods research into music piracy has appeared in diverse publications including The Psychologist,  Musicae Scientae, and Convergence.

In his guest post he reflects his long experience in the psychology in music piracy research to question if piracy is economically ‘bad’ or ‘good’. He comes to the conslusion that the answer is strongly dependent on the methodology used in the research. This is in line with my findings in the blog series “How Bad is Music File Sharing?”

Read more on Steven’s thoughts on music file sharing research here:


Is digital piracy ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Well, that depends on who you ask… – guest post by Steven Brown

In a recent article of mine published in the journal Convergence, I criticised the conventional research methods used to examine digital piracy and explored alternative ways to further research into this contentious area of research. Ultimately, my aim was to encourage reflection on the knowledge gained to date as being a product of the particular methodologies used to date – this is not controversial. Yet, it has caused a quiet stir amongst some circles.

The point I would like to make here is this: just because something looks or sounds right, it does not mean that it is right. Or more specifically, assumptions about digital piracy being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are dependent on how you look at it (or perhaps what you’re looking for).

People don’t like to be wrong. If they have committed a lot of time and effort on something, then they are likely to persist – this includes maintaining beliefs. Even in the face of disconfirming evidence, people who believe in something are perfectly able to find ways to neutralise or rationalise this new information and carry on. This is the case even with concrete evidence. Given this is lacking with digital piracy research, it is unsurprising that people routinely reject the findings from empirical works (using various methodologies).

Every now and then a paper finds its way into mainstream press which claims that digital piracy has no negative impact on the recorded music industry or even that it is positive, acting as a try-before-you-buy sort of thing. These papers may very well correct. However, there’s a whole bunch of other research articles which reach the other, more intuitive conclusion that it is negative and it offsets otherwise legal sales. These papers may also very well be correct. They certainly appear more credible, given the outcomes sound right. This is not, however, how to evaluate the conclusions of individual pieces of research, and I don’t think I need to elaborate on that here.

The more important point I wish to make here is that only the controversial papers which seem to support digital piracy make the headlines and so the general public are only exposed to information which more or less confirms that digital piracy is good (or at least not bad). People look for information to support their point of view, and filter out everything else. It’s a natural human tendency. It interferes with different stakeholders reaching any real consensus on digital piracy however, where governing bodies like the RIAA seem perfectly confident citing research findings that are seemingly plucked out of thin air. Who can be trusted?

A healthy dose of scepticism is encouraged when it comes to evaluating research findings (on any topic) but from my experience over the last few years researching the psychology of music piracy, it would appear that many people simply do not want to listen to facts and figures, however well informed, which run contrary to their own notions on the subject – it’s very frustrating.

I myself am unclear about whether digital piracy is ‘bad’ in economic terms, it is not the focus of my attention. Yet, I make it my business to keep on top of research into this area. As an academic, it’s perfectly acceptable for me to say ‘I don’t know’ when someone asks me if digital piracy has a negative impact on the recorded music industry for example, because, I don’t know – I can’t know. I have the benefit of being indifferent. Those working in the recorded music industry however can’t do the same; they have a stake in things and need to work from some assumption which more often than not is that digital piracy is bad for business. They may be correct. Pirates also need from some sort of assumption and for the most part this has to be that digital piracy is not bad for business (or surely it would jeapordise the likelihood of future works from their favourite artists, for example?) They also, may be correct.

In an attempt to conclude this short piece (which is ostensibly about how it is difficult to draw any conclusions on the subject) I pose the question: is it possible for different stakeholders to all be correct about digital piracy?

The answer might, paradoxically, be yes. Common sense notions that music piracy for example affects the ‘music industry’ offer one window to how this might be the case, given there is no such thing really – it is a series of inter-related industries with the live music sector often excluded from analysis on the impact of music piracy. Indeed, the notion that digital piracy is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is problematic, as is the nature of term ‘piracy’ overall (and indeed ‘pirates’). In other words, it’s complicated.

There are several ways in which to evaluate the economic impact of digital piracy and I’m sure that different stakeholders will be able to reach whatever conclusions they please even if drawing from the same resource pool.

This is what has been happening for the last twenty years.




3 Responses to “Is piracy ‘good’ or ‘bad’? – guest post by Steven Brown”

  1. July 21, 2014 at 6:51 am

    Hi steven, Thanks for the excellent guest post. Is digital piracy is bad? it’s a question full of doubt. For me, i usually buy legal digital things, but sometimes downloading from net does not seem bad. So, it’s tough.

  2. August 12, 2014 at 10:01 am

    Hi Steven, glad you tackle the issue of methods used but even more is important questioning the meaning of piracy and its role in ecosystem. Specially now when we entered the era of access rather than ownership, in which we have to analyse who controls access. Few music streaming access control companies could be looked as pirates, as they control the price to consumer and price paid to copyright holders. In true free market catalogue of 40 M songs will be available to anybody who wants to build services on top of such catalogue having freedom to define own pricing models with fair share with content owners. We could look Spotify as pirate (or better privateer), as it increased its value for few billions, while charing more to users (saw research that average US music consumer spending was 60$ and with Spotify is 12×10$) and paying less to artists. They “squeezed” value from social structures into their market valuation cap. Is that piracy, or privateer ? For the first time in human history we are in position that only few could control legal access to global musical catalogue and make income distribution in their best interests. Here we lack the power of the market except piracy as a market force, which is in a way neutralised by shift from owning to access. When you own something it could be pirated while access could only be controlled…. Hope this post is not off the topic, as I assume that fighting piracy is one of the reason which lead us to such a position when few control access to whole global music catalogue and there is no way back, and all of this based on piracy excuse
    PS And it will be cool to have pirated version of your paper as its not free access 🙂

  3. December 16, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    Hi folks, thanks for the comments. That’s me just catching up on this.

    I think a good overall point is to stop thinking of it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as is usually how it is approached. It automatically limits the scope of discussion to think in such black and white terms. The correct ‘answer’ inevitably lies somewhere in the middle, where it will be good for some people and bad for others. It’s all about perspective.

    Consumers of course win, as is always the case with any technological development.

    The economics of streaming are of interest to me, but I suspect it’s too early to know what’s going on there. By all appearances, they are not being used as ‘music discovery’ platforms but rather as substitutes to paying for music. If I can listen to an album whenever I want, what’s the difference in ‘owning’ it or not?

    A lot of changes going on, so it’s hard to know what to make of it quite yet. Interesting stuff though.

    Generally speaking, industry bodies appear content enough at the moment as if to suggest the scale of piracy has reduced (thanks to Spotify, etc.) enough to be more manageable.

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