This week the government’s internet censorship bill will be debated in the Senate. It’s being referred to as the “site-blocking” bill, but let’s call it what it is — a mechanism whereby some of the world’s biggest companies can force your ISP to block your access to sites they don’t like, including, potentially, encryption and VPN sites.

The bill is another bipartisan attack on the internet from the Coalition and Labor, the parties that brought you mass surveillance earlier this year, done at the behest of the copyright industry, which is a generous donor to both sides and particularly to the Coalition. In addition to their cash, the big parties are happy to also use the copyright industry’s arguments in favour of internet censorship.

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In particular, the politicians love to echo the claim made by the copyright industry that content piracy is destroying jobs in our creative industries. “Market research indicates that movie piracy alone costs the Australian economy $1.37 billion worth of sales, $193 million in tax revenue and 6100 FTE jobs each year,” shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus claimed last week in debate on the bill. What he failed to disclose was that this “market research” was (you guessed it) “independent modelling” commissioned by the copyright industry several years ago and endlessly spruiked by the industry (and mindlessly repeated by the media) ever since. As Crikey showed at the time, those numbers Dreyfus is quoting are rubbish.

And courtesy of a small coincidence of timing, we can demonstrate again what rubbish those numbers are. We’ll leave aside the laughable claim that the copyright industry employs over 900,000 people in Australia (more than manufacturing). But last week, the ABS released its quarterly industry breakdown of jobs, including a breakdown of how many people are employed in each sub-division within each industry. So let’s look at the industry sub-division “Motion Picture and Sound Recording Activities”. In the May 2015 quarter, that sub-division employed 31,400 people. Hmmm. Not very big, then. Evidently the sector has taken a hammering because piracy is destroying the Australian film industry, right? Except, 31,400 (which was also the size of the sector in the February quarter) is the fourth-highest level in the industry ever. Or, at least, going back to 1984, when the data series begins. Maybe Ken G. Hall et al employed more people back in the days of Pagewood Studios in the 1930s and 1940s; we don’t know.

But quarterly figures are volatile. Let’s average them across a space of two years. In the last two years, movie and sound recording has employed, on average, 27,100. The two years before that, it employed on average 27,600. So, decline? Well, the two years before that — 2009-11 — was employment of 26,600. And over 2007-09 it was 25,200; between 2005 and 2007, some 24,700 worked in the industry.

Employment in that sector allegedly being smashed by piracy is increasing — not uniformly, but substantially. At the end of the 1990s (when George Lucas was making Star Wars here) the industry barely employed 20,000 people. In the mid-1990s, the sub-division employed 13,000 — less than half of its current level. And if you think that’s not much of an achievement given the growth in the size of the economy and the workforce since then, compare some other industries. In the same period, manufacturing has shed over 100,000 jobs; agriculture around 80,000 jobs.

If piracy were going to destroy 6000 jobs in the arts sector every year, why is employment in the specific sub-sector that according to the copyright industry is the one directly affected by piracy now 31,000, compared to 24,000 in 2011, when this much-cited “study” was conducted?

Here’s hoping those big Village Roadshow donations to both sides of politics are a bit more authentic than their dodgy stats.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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