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An Objective Analysis of Piracy Site Blocking

3 November 2017

From Brett Danaher:

Arguments against piracy website blocking seem to mostly take one of two forms:  there are arguments about it violating freedom speech or potentially “breaking the Internet” (to use a popular phrase), and there are arguments of the form “it won’t have any impact, you can still find ways to pirate any content you want, so why do it?”  I’m not a legal scholar, so I don’t have any special expertise on freedom of speech.  I’m also not an expert on the technical side of the Internet – although I do know that site blocking has been implemented in over 40 countries and in studying site blocking in several of those countries I’ve seen no evidence of a “broken Internet” or even a serious challenge to net neutrality.  But I would leave the arguments about this to those whose expertise lies in the area of Internet policy regulation.

That said, I can offer my expertise on the argument that website blocking won’t have any impact because pirate content can always be found somewhere.  I’ve been doing empirical research on this claim for the better part of a decade now; specifically, I’ve been looking at whether supply side antipiracy policies – enforcement actions that target piracy sites or protocols – can influence consumers to turn from illegal channels to legal ones.  And I’ve been keeping an eye on the research of colleagues asking this same question.  My findings are summarized in a peer-reviewed article published in Communications of the ACM.

. . . .

Basically, there is no evidence of a supply side antipiracy action that completely removes popular content from the Internet – you can always find it somewhere.  And there is evidence that antipiracy actions that do not make piracy sufficiently difficult have no meaningful impact on legal sales or total piracy, because consumers can either find other sites from which to pirate the content or circumvent the enforcement actions.

. . . .

However, research also shows that taking actions against piracy sites can sometimes make piracy so inconvenient that a meaningful group of marginal consumers will turn their behavior from illegal sources to legal ones.  For example, Mike Smith and I found that when Megaupload.com and Megavideo.com (the two largest piracy cyberlockers in the world) were both shutdown, many sites that linked to their content stopped working and many cyberlockers shifted their policies to be less tolerant toward copyright infringement.  The result was a causal increase in revenues from digital movie sales and rentals of about 7.5%.  Later, along with Rahul Telang, we found that even though the UK blocking the thepiratebay.org caused little decrease in total piracy and no increase in legal consumption, the UK blocking of 19 major video piracy sites in November 2013 caused a 12% increase in legal consumption and a large decrease in total piracy.  Later, when 53 more piracy websites were blocked in November 2014, we found a similar effect.

The point is that supply side antipiracy actions fail when they only slightly raise the difficulty of pirating content, but seem to succeed in nudging consumption toward legal channels when they sufficiently raise the cost/inconvenience of pirating content.

Link to the rest at Brett Danaher


15 Comments to “An Objective Analysis of Piracy Site Blocking”

  1. In the case of digital video, you can usually gain access to a digital version for $2-$4, so it makes sense that the most popular titles will be rented more often if they can’t be found illegally. But only the most popular titles. What, maybe 1% of titles?

    But BPH books? At $15? $15 is a pretty good reason to keep hunting if you’re already inclined not to pay.

    • Anthony –

      This is interesting. I’d have loved to be able to observe legal consumption at different price levels, to see if website blocking was increasing consumption of lower price products but not higher price products. That would make sense, right?

      Unfortunately, I couldn’t get access to data that would allow for such a test. Would make a great study though.

  2. Here Is what happens when the Russian government blocked a number of sites relating to piracy and incidentally, eight times as many sites that were not related to piracy
    It seems to have made the piracy even worse.

  3. I wonder if this guys knows what a Kodi box is. Or a VPN. Or Tor.

    Back in the days of Napster and Limewire, piracy was a nerd thing. The sites were complicated and dangerous, and not intuitive for average users.

    Now you can buy an Amazon Firestick on eBay already loaded with Kodi. All movies and TV, all the time, for free.

    You can try to block file sharing sites (though MegaUpload has relaunched as Mega and has already had 20 billion uploads), and Pirate Bay refuses to be killed. But it is impossible to block peer-to-peer.

    Instead of creators embracing a market that users created to share content, they’re trying to block the automobile because they sell buggy whips.

    • Hi Joe –

      I do actually know what a Kodi box is and agree that it can make piracy extremely easy.

      I’m actually in agreement with you that when you block piracy sites, the majority of those blocked downloads don’t turn into legal purchases. And if you only block a few sites, maybe even none of them turn into legal purchases.

      Different people pirate differently though. For some, when you block a number of sites, it seems to make pirating frustrating enough to shift toward legal channels. How many? That’s what my research was intended to uncover. And it seems to be a significant shift, though certainly nowhere near half of the thwarted piracy turned into legal consumption (consistent with what you seemed to expect).

      Your argument about what people *can* do is spot on. But you are wrong that everyone pirates in these ways, or that everyone knows what a VPN is, or that everyone will go get one. The real question is what people *choose* to do once a number of piracy sites are blocked, and I think my research gives a pretty good indication due to the data and methodology.

      • Hi Brett–

        Thanks for chiming in.

        For some, when you block a number of sites, it seems to make pirating frustrating enough to shift toward legal channels.

        That’s like building a wall to block the tide. The tide always breaks through.

        Kodi is the latest example of priracy becoming simpler and more mainstream. Remember Popcorn Time a few years ago? Piracy is mimicking platforms like Netflix and Hulu to the point where they are almost indistinguishable, save for the fact that with the piracy alternatives the user doesn’t have to pay.

        We’re all very used to free media content. Libraries, Radio, TV, lending VHS and books and LPs. I’m old enough to have made mix tapes for friends. I remember back in the 70s when a local radio station would play an entire album, and there was outcry because who would buy albums if they were being played for free? The album I recall them playing was Dark Side of the Moon. I taped it. Then I bought it on vinyl. Then I bought it on CD, with the rest of Floyd.

        I wasn’t the only one. And DSotM still sells pretty well, last I checked.

        The Internet is a peer-to-peer information machine. Some information comes in the form of digital media. Making certain traffic channels more difficult to access requires time and money far out of proportion to their effectiveness at stopping piracy.

        You can’t fight piracy. But you can co-exist with it. And if you’re smart, you can embrace the distribution channel that fans have set up to share your work. That’s what media companies and artists should be focused on.

        Geeks created torrents to share media. That’s how important media is for them. There has to be a way for artists to monetize that.

        I’ve tried in the past. I’ll try again, soon. And I’ll post my results.

        • That’s like building a wall to block the tide. The tide always breaks through.

          The Dutch have lots of pumps to back up those imperfect dikes.

          You can’t fight piracy. But you can co-exist with it.

          One can easily do both and live with a reduced amount of piracy.

    • I wonder if this guys knows what a Kodi box is. Or a VPN. Or Tor.

      Sure they know. The aim of anti-piracy isn’t complete eradication. It’s easy to win an argument against that.

      The aim of almost all security other than nuclear is to reduce behavior by a material amount. Material means a measurable amount that can be attributed to the action.

      The fact that something exists doesn’t mean it cannot be reduced.

  4. You can’t stop piracy. Anyone offering a scheme to do so is just a con-man looking to fleece you of your money.

    You can only make something ‘not worth’ a pirate’s time to bother with.

    Over price it? Yeah, you’ll see pirates if they think it’s something worth having. And once they have it a pirate might see no reason not to share with others.

    DRM – Digital Restrictions Management? More often hurts those that actually bought your ebook. And all current DRM can be gotten around if the pirate is determined enough.

    Seeding fakes? Sure, go for it. But if the reader hunting ebooks thinks the real thing isn’t worth the cost, they’ll keep hunting – or decide not to bother. (And unless ‘everyone’ gets into the fake seeds the hunters will simply find something else to read.)

    Baen seems to have the right idea, free sample reads right on their sites and ebooks in all formats for not too much.

    YMMV as they say.

    • You can only make something ‘not worth’ a pirate’s time to bother with.

      Exactly. That increases the transaction costs of the acquiring the book. If the dollar cost is zero, but it takes an hour of labor, that is a one hour cost for the book.

      The transaction cost may be as little as side-loading. But that is sufficient to deter many people. (People pay for books on Amazon that are free on Gutenberg.)

      We often hear about what people can do. But we can observe they still don’t do it, even if it is easy. Books aren’t special. Transaction costs affect book consumers just like anyone else. Increase transaction costs, and we see the same effect as increasing dollar costs.

      And DRM? Activists care. Nobody else does. People buy zillions of books with DRM, and don’t even know what DRM is. That’s because it doesn’t affect them.

  5. One of the most influential lectures I’ve seen was in 1999 at the Smithsonian on the digital economy. I wish I could recall his name. He argued that in the “bit” economy, the “pattern of bits” was free, so you had to find a way to get people to pay for something else. This is a change from the “atom economy” where only one person can own a particular grouping of atoms at a time.

    One of the things he argued is that people will pay for convenience. You can get the song for free, or you can pay $0.99 to just take two clicks and download it from iTunes. You also know that the iTunes version will be virus free and reasonable quality. It’s not the song itself people are paying for.

    This study is basically proving the same point. Yes, you can get around the blocks (like Konrath argues), but obviously a lot of people are choosing to just pay for the convenience of not having to.

  6. Yes, you can get around the blocks (like Konrath argues), but obviously a lot of people are choosing to just pay for the convenience of not having to.

    There’s more going on. Some of the most seeded and leeched torrents are from TV shows that aired the previous night.

    With that kind of demand, why not make that show instantly and freely available for streaming?

    The main reason I pirate media is to find things that simply aren’t available for sale. LPs that were never released on CD. VHS that never made it to DVD. Why can’t I buy Kappa Mikey, or Sifl & Olly? I’d love official Blu Ray releases, instead of AVI rips from television. I’d pay $200 for a legal version of Activision Kaboom! with paddles that work on HDMI.

    People want media. Make it easily and cheaply available, and it’ll sell. If enough people want it, the media becomes a franchise and people will buy more than just the media. A great example is Rick & Morty. I have no idea how much money the series actually makes on TV, but the merch has gone nuts.

    And guess what? Widely pirated.|

    Pirates love media. Stopping them won’t ever happen. But there are ways to monetize some of them. Instead of figuring that out, companies have found it more beneficial to back draconian Disney copyright laws, sue grandmothers, spend millions on DRM (which harms consumers who purchase legally), and waste time with takedown notices, all the while stoking fear to justify outrageous prices for bits and bytes that cost nothing to produce or deliver.

    • all the while stoking fear to justify outrageous prices for bits and bytes that cost nothing to produce or deliver.

      Amazon incurs no costs for it’s digital book business?

      There may be alternative business models, and why a firm chooses one over another is their decision. They don’t have to justify why they don’t choose the model I want them to choose.

      However, within their chosen model, it is possible to reduce piracy. We may not like their model, but increasing consumer transaction costs reduces acquisition of the goods in all models.

      • > Amazon incurs no costs for it’s digital book business?

        storage and delivery of an e-book is very close to zero

        according to https://www.backblaze.com/blog/hard-drive-cost-per-gigabyte/ disk storage is down to $0.03/GB, which will hold somewhere between a thousand and a million books.

        If you use the super inflated cellular cost of $10/GB (overage price gouging), you are still down below $0.10 to deliver the book, and wired prices are several orders of magnitude lower.

        Yes, this does add up in volume and with redundancy, but it still very close to zero.

        What Amazon spends money on is the storefront, the tools for discovery, and the infrastructure to handle the money (which probably costs as much as the rest combined)

        • storage and delivery of an e-book is very close to zero

          Marginal costs are very low. But plant, personnel, development, and fixed costs are very high. Those are lots of costs Amazon incurs.

          If all one needed was storage and delivery money, anyone could successfully compete with Amazon. I think they know lots more is involved.

          B&N faced the same variable costs.

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