Ars Technica's Julian Sanchez takes a long, investigative look at the entertainment industry's claim that piracy costs the American economy 750,000 jobs and $250 billion and discovers the truth: they made it up and repeated it until they forgot they had made it up.
With Customs a dead end, we dove into press archives, hoping to find the earliest public mention of the elusive 750,000 jobs number. And we found it in–this is not a typo–1986. Yes, back in the days when "Papa Don't Preach" and "You Give Love a Bad Name" topped the charts, The Christian Science Monitor quoted then-Commerce Secretary Malcom Baldridge, trumpeting Ronald Reagan's own precursor to the recently passed PRO-IP bill. Baldridge estimated the number of jobs lost to the counterfeiting of U.S. goods at "anywhere from 130,000 to 750,000."
Where did that preposterously broad range come from? As with the number of licks needed to denude a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know. Ars submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Commerce this summer, hoping to uncover the basis of Baldridge's claim–or any other Commerce Department estimates of job losses to piracy–but came up empty. So whatever marvelous proof the late secretary discovered was not to be found in the margins of any document in the government's vaults. But no matter: By 1987, that Brobdignagian statistical span had been reduced, as far as the press were concerned, to "as many as 750,000" jobs. Subsequent reportage dropped the qualifier. The 750,000 figure was still being bandied about this summer in support of the aforementioned PRO-IP bill...
The number the ITC actually came up with, based on a survey of several hundred business selected for their likely reliance on IP for revenue, was $23.8 billion–the estimated losses to their respondents. That number was based on industry estimates that the authors of the study noted "could admittedly be biased and self-serving," since the firms had every incentive to paint the situation in the most dire terms as a means of spurring government action. But the figures at least appeared to be consistent and reasonable, both internally and across sectors.
The $60 billion number comes from a two-page appendix, in which the authors note that it's impossible to extrapolate from a self-selecting group of IP-heavy respondents to the economy as a whole. But taking a wild stab and assuming that firms outside their sample experienced losses totaling a quarter to half those of their respondents, the ITC guessed that the aggregate losses to the economy might be on the order of "$43 billion to $61 billion."