Game of Thrones - most illegally downloaded show of 2012. With the start of season 3 last week, it's very likely to retain the mantle in 2013

As indicated by this recent article, Does lousy service justify fare evasion?, some public transport users are very inventive when it comes to finding good reasons to justify not paying for their tickets.

Popular rationales include fares are too expensive; the quality of service doesn’t justify payment; it’s a public good so it ought to be free; the marginal cost to the transit authority is zero; and more.

Some people are also very good at coming up with rationalisations for pirating media like songs, movies, TV shows, computer programs and e-books.  John Birmingham calls it stealing, but those who do it tend to offer more honourable justifications.

Some common ones are that the item isn’t available in Australia; it’s outrageously expensive here compared to other countries; the marginal cost to the producer is zero; “I wouldn’t have bought it anyway – I’m only using it because it’s free”; and more.

I suspect most of my peers don’t know what ‘torrenting’ is much less what terms like P2P mean. I’d be pretty confident though that most of them have knowingly consumed pirated media – especially music – at one time or another.

Yet I’d be very surprised if any of them actively evade paying for trips on public transport, no matter how bad the service.

That seems hypocritical and it intrigues me why some people display apparently contradictory behaviours.

I think one reason is the probability of being caught is perceived (correctly I’d say) to be much higher for fare evasion than it is for pirating media. Provided its done for personal use and not profit, the liklihood of being prosecuted for pirating appears microscopic.

Another is that fare evasion is always first person, whereas many users enjoy pirated material ‘second-hand’. They can abdicate responsibility because they bought the media at a market for spare change or their children downloaded it.

The social consequences are different too. Pirating imposes negligible marginal manufacturing and transaction costs on media producers because all that physically changes hands is electrons.

That’s why spammers can send out millions of e-mails (their real costs are in dealing with the occasional sucker that replies).

Fare evasion, however, does impose marginal costs. Extra carriages, cleaners, administrative services, etc, have to be provided to accommodate extra passengers whether they pay or not.

It’s true that pirating can deprive media producers of revenue if the user would otherwise have purchased the item. That’s a real loss of income for all those involved in the production chain.

With public transport, that loss of revenue is spread more widely. It’s primarily borne by other public transport users via higher fares and/or higher taxes.

However I don’t think most pirating involves substitution. I expect illegal downloaders wouldn’t otherwise have purchased most of the media they pirate.

It’s probable something like the Pareto Principle operates here, with circa 80% of all unlawful downloading being done by around 20% of all downloaders.

A lot of stuff is downloaded ‘on spec’ because it’s free. If it costs nothing to check out Dylan’s Christmas album then people will do it out of mere curiosity.

If it weren’t free downloaders would be much more selective in their media choices: they wouldn’t bother with a doubtful product like Christmas in the Heart.

And the great majority would opt (say) for a freeware image processing program or buy one at the bottom end of the market rather than fork out $1,000 plus for a program like Photoshop.

But I think fare evaders make a different calculation. The time involved in travelling by public transport is usually a big component of the overall cost relative to the fare. They’re mostly making the trip anyway – they’re just choosing not to pay if they can get away with it.

Let me emphasise that in saying evading fares and pirating media aren’t equivalent I’m not endorsing unlawful downloading of media. My point is that fare-evasion is much more problematic.

BTW, if you don’t have Foxtel there’s no “need” to torrent season 3 of Game of Thrones – each episode is available from iTunes in HD a few hours after it airs on cable at the reasonable price of $3.49 (or even less).

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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