Bad Science versus the piracy scare story

Ben "Bad Science" Goldacre tries to get to the bottom of the insane piracy numbers the British entertainment industry likes to throw around -- and concludes that they're bunkum (what's more, the spin doctors from the entertainment industry tried at the end of their unsuccessful call to declare the whole thing off the record!).
But what about all these other figures in the media coverage? Lots of it revolved around the figure of 4.73 billion items downloaded each year, worth £120 billion. This means each downloaded item, software, movie, mp3, ebook, is worth about £25. Now before we go anywhere, this already seems rather high. I am not an economist, and I don't know about their methods, but to me, for example, an appropriate comparator for someone who downloads a film to watch it once might be the rental value, not the sale value. And someone downloading a £1,000 professional 3D animation software package to fiddle about with at home may not use it more than three times. I'm just saying.

In any case, that's £175 a week or £8,750 a year potentially not being spent by millions of people. Is this really lost revenue for the economy, as reported in the press? Plenty will have been schoolkids, or students, and even if not, that's still about a third of the average UK wage. Before tax. Oh but the figures were wrong: it was actually 473 million items and £12 billion (so the item value was still £25) but the wrong figures were in the original executive summary, and the press release. They changed them quietly, after the errors were pointed out by a BBC journalist. I can find no public correction.

I asked what steps they took to notify journalists of their error, which exaggerated their findings by a factor of ten and were widely reported in news outlets around the world. SABIP refused to answer my questions in emails, insisted on a phone call (always a warning sign), told me that they had taken steps but wouldn't say what, explained something about how they couldn't be held responsible for lazy journalism, then, bizarrely, after ten minutes, tried to tell me retrospectively that the whole call was actually off the record, that I wasn't allowed to use the information in my piece, but that they had answered my questions, and so they didn't need to answer on the record, but I wasn't allowed to use the answers, and I couldn't say they hadn't answered, I just couldn't say what the answers were. Then the PR man from SABIP demanded that I acknowledge, in our phone call, formally, for reasons I still don't fully understand, that he had been helpful.

Home taping didn't kill music (Thanks, Richard K!)


  1. I’m surprised that copyright holders (mostly record companies, apparently) still feel they have to use scare tactics in the Internet era. The figures and the evidence seem to suggest that people prize convenience above all else. Make it easy and inexpensive to buy copyrighted material and people will do so. Put idiotic restrictions on DVD’s and continue to charge the earth for them long after they have recouped their initial costs and people will try to circumvent the system. The whole system of copyright needs attention – how come Mickey Mouse is still in copyright, for instance? Meanwhile, many works which are out of copyright have not been properly returned to the public domain – this is wrong.

  2. Why do snake oil sellers behave like these guys?
    Oh, wait, these guys sell binary snake oil!

  3. how about a class action lawsuit by the public against these liars for losses incurred caused by people changing their economic behaviour based on said deliberate lies?

  4. “Then the PR man from SABIP demanded that I acknowledge, in our phone call, formally, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, that he had been helpful. ”

    Considering what an educational phone call that was, he probably was helpful.

  5. @takuan, nah how about a lawsuit by all the people who have settled or paid according to these cost calculations asking for a refund of the difference :)

  6. While counting a downloaded file as a net loss in purchase price is likely to be bogus, I do think that estimating the cost based on its rental value is not accurate either.

    A downloaded file does not have to returned after a few days and is thus much more likely to be shared among friends/family over time. So, while yes, the downloader may have been more likely to rent the item in question than purchase it, you have to factor in the other “rental” losses that occur each time he/she shares the dvd/cd he/she burned the file to. In some cases, that’s a pretty substantial multiplier I’m sure.

  7. Ben Goldacre is fast becoming one of my favorite online reads. His battles against the forces of medical woowoo are great too.

  8. They can’t really back anything up, because there is absolutely NO WAY TO KNOW how many of us would actually have bought their crap in the first place.
    As Ben says, students and the like will, out of curiosity, try out different software, or even watch moves online, but hey, they’re students, and probably wouldn’t have the cash to go to the movies anyway!

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