Bastille Day Bulletin: Nearly One-Third Of French Citizens Storm The Gates Of Online Piracy

The French anti-piracy law is one of the strictest around, and authorities have now tracked down 18 million pirates. That's close to one in three French people. What does this say about the nature of piracy? And the future of music?

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This week French authorities have revealed how their anti-piracy drive is going, and it's actually staggering: 18 million French citizens have been identified as music pirates. Meanwhile, about 50,000 first warning emails have been sent to suspected pirates per month, every month. But that number is probably an underestimate of true pirating levels, as several users on the same IP address could be guilty, and France's population is only around 62 million. So who's actually in the wrong here? And what can be done about it?

The Hadopi IP protection law came into force in France in October 2010, and since then French Internet users deemed guilty of pirating music or videos by the authorities have been tracked down and warned of the consequences. Three strikes and they get temporarily disconnected from the Net--even if it's a multiple-user household and only one is infringing. Due to the limitations of the system, only a million people suspected of piracy had their IP data summonsed, and only 470,000 warnings have been sent. No one has yet been disconnected.

The figures revealed this week prompt several debates: If 29% French people are online pirates, is the law strictly reflecting the needs/wants of the population (assuming the law is the servant of the populace)? You can argue that 29% is still a minority, and thus argue that yes, the law is valid.

Perhaps that question is better phrased as "if so many people pirate content, is it sensible to make it illegal"? There are arguments about protecting the revenues of music, TV, and film industries--of course--and these are shouted loudly by content protecting bodies like the RIAA and MPAA in America. But, for sure, pirating music isn't like speeding--which many people also do, illegally--because speeding can result in injury and death. 

And of course, the scale of the piracy problem uncovered here taps into the biggest questions of all: Why do people pirate? And is it because the music industry hasn't innovated to keep up with the cutting edge of tech? And also of the wants and desires of the people it's entirely dependent on for revenues, the music-loving population? Falling music revenues is, ultimately, a bad thing--because it may stifle the arrival of new music (although a counter-argument is that new music will arrive by itself, and may be more innovative than the churned output of the big music labels). But if so many people want digital music badly enough to pirate it, then it seems clear that the structure of the music industry is back-to-front.

Why do people pirate? Simple, right? Because a pirated track is free, and a paid track is not. But perhaps it's really because the legal tracks actually cost too much. ZDNet's recent survey found that a tiny 4% of admitted file-sharers stopped acquiring music from illegal sources because they feared being found out--so the deterrent is actually much weaker than the urge to acquire new music and video content quickly and cheaply. That smacks of an industry that needs to bite the bullet and supply its content on a huge scale and for much lower costs--sparking more sales (presuming that most people would prefer not to be "scamming" the artist behind an album, as surveys have shown) but at a lower profit margin.

Which leads us to an interesting observation: Has the tech industry quickly outmaneuvered the music business itself, and all but solved this problem? Apple's found a way to almost monetize pirated tracks with iTunes Match. And new models like Spotify allow for very cheap access to quality music via a much simpler method (just tapping at its elegantly designed UI) than pirating--which is a multi-step process you're not likely to try on your smartphone. Netflix and its ilk are trying to do the same for movie content.

It's interesting to note, as a parting shot, that the reason often mentioned for Spotify's delayed entry to the U.S. was a closed-minded resistance from the big music labels--presumably worried about total disruption of their comfy business models. And it's also worth noting that what some see as rank profiteering by cell phone networks is resulting in data caps on smartphone use, which could stifle streaming content models.

[Image: Flickr user winton]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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