- 29 May 09, 10:42 GMT
Oh no: another boring report about piracy by a strange body with an obscure title.
That was my first reaction on getting hold of Copycats? Digital Consumers in the Online Age [2.76Mb PDF] - a report for the Strategic Advisory Board on Intellectual Property.
But when I read on, the report was full of fascinating insights into the way that we've all begun to think about the rights and wrongs of online piracy - or rather, "unauthorised downloading", which is how this report for the government carefully describes it.
The authors, from University College London, point to evidence that what they amusingly call the "UK's unauthorised downloading community" now stands at nearly seven million people, and they question the assumption that these are just teenagers and students - it seems older people are downloading too.
They emphasise the sheer scale of it - 1.3 million people online sharing content at one peer-to-peer network at midday on a weekday - and the fact that fast networks are going to make it ever easier to download Star Wars in three minutes or the complete works of Dickens in the blink of an eye.
But what's really interesting are the authors' conclusions about the way people think about this activity. They argue that there are now two cultures - digital and the physical world - and you can't apply one set of rules to the other.
Illegal file-sharing is not only much easier than, say, lifting a CD out of a record store; it has become far more socially acceptable - "if everyone I know is doing it, how can it be wrong?"
They point to growing confusion amongst digital consumers as to what is or is not illegal in a world where there are now so many different ways of getting hold of content. So much on the internet is free - from VOIP calls, to services like Google Earth, to social networking services - that it's hard to remember that you are expected to pay for some things.
In the words of the report, "the vast availability of 'free content' changes existing perceptions of 'ownership' and utility." So, among 15-to-19-year-olds, 69% now do not feel they should have to pay for music.
For the digital consumer, many file-sharing services are now as big - and as trusted - brands as those of any large, legal corporation. So Limewire or Pirate Bay is seen as offering convenience and good service, just as older consumers might have liked to shop at the Co-Op or get their paper from WH Smith.
This report was meant for the culture minister David Lammy, and feeds into the government's thinking ahead of the Digital Britain report, but it may provide him with little comfort.
Criminalising seven million people, it concludes, will have huge costs and may not even work in a globalised economy where other countries my follow different policies. Then again, telling those seven million that it's fine to go on downloading for nothing will make it even harder for the creative industries to develop sustainable online businesses. So, no easy answers in this report.
Whenever I talk to people about this issue, I nearly always get the same response - if only the music and movie industries got their act together and provided cheaper and easier-to-use online services, the problem would go away. Is that really the case?
Yesterday, someone contacted me to point out that Stephen Fry's audiobook was top of the iTunes chart, saying that arguably he had got distribution, price and product all correct.
I replied, asking whether my correspondent would still not opt to download Mr Fry's book for nothing if he could - and whether the big record labels that occupied the number one spot on iTunes in previous weeks had also got everything right. He hasn't yet come back.
However lamentably the music industry approached the internet when the threat to its revenues first became apparent, there are now plenty of legal and reasonably cheap methods of getting hold of its products online. But in a world where it is socially acceptable to download for nothing, many people may continue to believe that it's just daft to pay.
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