Is News Ltd planning a push on copyright infringement? Yesterday Kim Williams went hard on movie and TV piracy, invoking Shakespeare, Dickens and Ronnie Biggs is his attack on “scumbag theft” and claiming it was costing the economy $1.37 billion a year.
Williams’s company will be in the zombie arm of the Murdoch empire once News Corp splits into two, with the high-performing movie and pay-TV assets in the other, healthy arm with the long-term future. But it will contain Foxtel, the pay-TV company where Williams demonstrated that he was Australia’s most successful and innovative media executive, building a profitable business in spite of the best efforts of the commercial television networks and their allies in government.
And Foxtel and its content providers, like free-to-air broadcasters, are also in the sights of filesharers, who prefer to download new television shows when they’re broadcast in the US and Britain, rather than wait the weeks/months/years it takes local broadcasters to show them.
At least his attack was colourful, with Williams claiming “virtual pirate Globe Theatres” would have prevented Shakespeare from ever being more than a starving writer in a garret (Williams possibly recycled without attribution the example of Shakespeare from the head of the US Authors’ Guild, but let’s move on). Shakespeare’s not the best example for copyright hardliners: there was no copyright in England until nearly a century after him, which probably helped the playwright since he was a notorious plagiarist, routinely ripping off plots and lines of verse from other sources.
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Nor is Dickens a good example. The absence of international copyright laws had a peculiar impact on Dickens. He received no royalties from the United States, because American publishers back then reprinted British books without restriction or payment. In fact, the entire 19th century US publishing industry, including newspapers, relied on ripping off British authors. But the cheap copies of his books helped popularise Dickens in the US, and eventually when he travelled to the US he was the subject of a vast wave of adulation. On one American tour in the 1860s, Dickens made £38,000 from book readings alone. At his death, the US had provided one-fifth of his estate.
Then there’s Williams’s claim that movie piracy costs the Australian economy $1.37 billion a year, based on Intellectual Property Awareness Foundation research. IPAF is one of the assortment of local front organisations for the copyright cartel, and in fact the report Williams cites is a rehash of an earlier report by another local outfit, AFACT, prepared by IpsosMediaCT and Oxford Economics.
Crikey discussed the IpsosMediaCT and Oxford Economics report, and other claims by the copyright cartel, last year in detail. Copyright cartel mathematics is normally an entire branch of its own, wholly lacking in anything resembling logic, but the IpsosMediaCT and Oxford Economics is, by those standards, pretty rigorous. Its biggest problem is that it can only find $550 million in per annum direct economic impacts from piracy, based on assumptions about how many people download and how much they would have spent on legal purchases otherwise. To get to the more impressive $1.37 billion p.a. figure cited by IPAF and Williams, it assumes a multiplier for indirect impacts.
Problem is, behind this is an assumption that money not spent by filesharers on movies somehow vanishes from the economy, rather than being spent on other things in different industries. Revenue lost from the movie industry is revenue gained by another industry — possibly one based fully here in Australia rather than the US. That is, even accepting the $550 million figure, the $1.37 billion is a fiction.
Williams wants “a new set of copyright laws that protect our work from theft”. He didn’t offer much detail on this, but he presumably means forcing ISPs to police their customers — that’s the line that IPAF has been pushing, and which AFACT unsuccessfully took iiNet all the way to the High Court over. But Williams went even further and suggested that network provider NBN Co be forced to stop piracy on its network, presumably by blocking blacklisted websites. In roping in network providers as well as ISPs, Williams appears to be going further even than the discredited SOPA Bill in the US.
Bear in mind that Williams is currently also the standard-bearer for News Ltd’s campaign for free speech against government regulation of the media. It’s a role that sits uncomfortably with an advocate for ISPs policing their customers and network providers blocking websites.
But there’s a much simpler way to cut filesharing by at least 40%. Earlier this year, Essential Research found that 42% of people who currently fileshare said they would switch to paying for content if it was made available across the world at the same time and available for a low price. Why? Because the most consistent reason cited by filesharers, and particularly younger people (who are more likely to download illegally) for why they take illegal content is not that it’s free, but because they can’t get the content they want legally because local providers (like Foxtel and the FTA networks) won’t show it.
Williams rejects this. He wants us to think that filesharers are “scumbags” who do it simply because it’s free. That’s a simpler narrative than one in which the copyright cartel could dramatically cut illegal downloading (and increase their revenue) by making content available when consumers want it, rather than when distributors feel like broadcasting it. But the history of the copyright wars, which now stretch back to the late 90s, is of an industry that prefers to demonise its most enthusiastic customers rather than surrender control.