The game of clones and the Australia tax: divergent views about copyright business models and the willingness of Australian consumers to infringe

In a forthcoming issue of the UNSW Law Journal, Paula Dootson and I write about the effect of restrictive copyright licensing practices on the willingness of consumers to infringe copyright. This builds on Paula’s PhD work, and we present qualitative evidence to support the common intuition that the lack of access to legitimate content distribution channels increases the willingness of consumers to infringe copyright. But surpisingly, consumers do want to pay for access at a fair price if they can, and they’ll go to significant lengths to do it (like setting up a VPN to access netflix or itunes from another region).

We’ve made a pre-publication draft of the article available.

It is often said that Australia is a world leader in rates of copyright infringement for entertainment goods. In 2012, the hit television show, Game of Thrones, was the most downloaded television show over bitorrent, and estimates suggest that Australians accounted for a plurality of nearly 10% of the 3-4 million downloads each week. The season finale of 2013 was downloaded over a million times within 24 hours of its release, and again Australians were the largest block of illicit downloaders over BitTorrent, despite our relatively small population. This trend has led the former US Ambassador to Australia to implore Australians to stop ‘stealing’ digital content, and rightsholders to push for increasing sanctions on copyright infringers. The Australian Government is looking to respond by requiring Internet Service Providers to issue warnings and potentially punish consumers who are alleged by industry groups to have infringed copyright. This is the logical next step in deterring infringement, given that the operators of infringing networks (like The Pirate Bay, for example) are out of regulatory reach. This steady ratcheting up of the strength of copyright, however, comes at a significant cost to user privacy and autonomy, and while the decentralisation of enforcement reduces costs, it also reduces the due process safeguards provided by the judicial process.

This article presents qualitative evidence that substantiates a common intuition: one of the major reasons that Australians seek out illicit downloads of content like Game of Thrones in such numbers is that it is more difficult to access legitimately in Australia. The geographically segmented way in which copyright is exploited at an international level has given rise to a ‘tyranny of digital distance’, where Australians have less access to copyright goods than consumers in other countries. Compared to consumers in the US and the EU, Australians pay more for digital goods, have less choice in distribution channels, are exposed to substantial delays in access, and are sometimes denied access completely. In this article we focus our analysis on premium film and television offerings, like Game of Thrones, and through semi-structured interviews, explore how choices in distribution impact on the willingness of Australian consumers to seek out infringing copies of copyright material. Game of Thrones provides an excellent case study through which to frame this analysis: it is both one of the least legally accessible television offerings and one of the most downloaded through filesharing networks of recent times. Our analysis shows that at the same time as rightsholder groups, particularly in the film and television industries, are lobbying for stronger laws to counter illicit distribution, the business practices of their member organisations are counter-productively increasing incentives for consumers to infringe.

The lack of accessibility and high prices of copyright goods in Australia leads to substantial economic waste. The unmet consumer demand means that Australian consumers are harmed by lower access to information and entertainment goods than consumers in other jurisdictions. The higher rates of infringement that fulfils some of this unmet demand increases enforcement costs for copyright owners and imposes burdens either on our judicial system or on private entities – like ISPs – who may be tasked with enforcing the rights of third parties. Most worryingly, the lack of convenient and cheap legitimate digital distribution channels risks undermining public support for copyright law. Our research shows that consumers blame rightsholders for failing to meet market demand, and this encourages a social norm that infringing copyright, while illegal, is not morally wrongful.

The implications are as simple as they are profound: Australia should not take steps to increase the strength of copyright law at this time. The interests of the public and those of rightsholders align better when there is effective competition in distribution channels and consumers can legitimately get access to content. While foreign rightsholders are seeking enhanced protection for their interests, increasing enforcement is likely to increase their ability to engage in lucrative geographical price-discrimination, particularly for premium content. This is only likely to increase the degree to which Australian consumers feel that their interests are not being met and, consequently, to further undermine the legitimacy of copyright law. If consumers are to respect copyright law, increasing sanctions for infringement without enhancing access and competition in legitimate distribution channels could be dangerously counter-productive. We suggest that rightsholders’ best strategy for addressing infringement in Australia at this time is to ensure that Australians can access copyright goods in a timely, affordable, convenient, and fair lawful manner.