Will cheaper downloads really stop the online pirates?

There's no silver bullet to combat online piracy, and finding a viable solution will require all parties to ditch the hyperbole and find common ground.

The Coalition government has been on the receiving end of concerted criticism over its efforts to curb online piracy and, with the issue now entwined with its controversial mandatory data retention regime, finding a solution that will satisfy all the parties involved seems almost impossible.

Between copyright holders, the internet service providers and Australian customers, someone is bound to miss out. And the latest study commissioned by the telecom industry body Communications Alliance reveals an anxiety that it will be the average Australian that gets the raw deal.

While Attorney General George Brandis has painted the scourge of online piracy as an existentialist threat to creative industries, it might be worth keeping in mind that the Coalition’s hard line stance is perhaps designed to placate right holders rather than content creators.

It’s an important distinction to make, especially when commentary on the issue of online piracy is wrapped in such emotive language.

Rational talk out the window

When the issue of online piracy is classified to be as heinous an act as for terrorism or paedophilia, as Village Roadshow chose to do in its submission to the government, hopes of a rational debate fade rather quickly.

Rights holders are entitled to protecting their interests but the antagonism on display from some quarters is counterproductive. It only emboldens those who have no intention of ever paying for content, propels those feeling marginalised towards alternatives, and, as the Communications Alliance commissioned report highlights, makes the public anxious about a cost impost that they will inevitably have to bear.

The Online Copyright Infringement Research Report (PDF) study, carried out by JWS Research, doesn’t really shed any new light on the collective gripe that, by and large, fuels online piracy. The principal drivers of poor access and cost of content are still very much in the forefront.

According to the study, 66 per cent of respondents said that cheaper pricing from content distributors would have an appreciable impact on illegal downloads. Meanwhile, 60 percent of respondents said that making content available at the same time in Australia as it is elsewhere would also reduce online piracy.

An independent study earlier this year found 79 per cent of Australians are concerned about being charged significantly more than their US counterparts for digital products like movies, music, software and games, in what is commonly dubbed the 'Australia Tax'.

So what sort of prices are consumers willing to pay?

The Comms Alliance research indicates that the ideal price for a downloaded television episode is in the range of $1.20 to $1.70. This compares with the current local HD download per-episode price of $3.49.

It adds that continuous improvement in the availability and cost of online content, coupled with the creation of an educational program -- that highlights why illegal downloads are a problem -- with ISPs sending up to three notices to alleged infringers, can play a role in finding a non-regulated solution to the problem.

Earlier this month, Village Roadshow exhibited its willingness to compromise on pricing, telling Fairfax Media that it will tackle piracy by cutting the prices of both digital rentals and sales by up to 20 per cent.

The Schwarzenegger and Stallone action vehicle The Expendables 3 will be one of the first discounted films, with Village Roadshow Entertainment managing director Chris Chard announcing the film would be available through Google Play and iTunes for $4.99 compared to the previous price of $5.99.

However, the step is unlikely to make a dent on the public perception that right holders are still addicted to gouging the market and prefer the path of restriction and enforcement as the most effective response to online piracy.

By the same token, rights holders won’t pay much heed to consumer pleas that cheaper and easier access to content will eradicate piracy problems. The cynicism flows deep and strong on both sides and the failure to seek a middle ground will lead to a flawed outcome, because the pirates will only find new routes to access as right holders seek bigger walls.

Cost of enforcement 

A far more important point that Comms Alliance is keen to highlight is that 60 per cent of the respondents in the survey agree that rights holders should reimburse the reasonable costs of ISPs that assist them in fighting piracy.

Consumer outcomes aside, cost of enforcement remains the biggest bone of contention between right holders and the ISPs.

ISPs aren’t the altruistic defenders of public interest in this debate, as much as some may like to project that image. The industry wants to avoid being chained in binds mandated by the government and encumbered with regulation that adds to the cost of doing business.

One alternative being pursued by the industry is the so-called “Follow the Money” approach used in the UK.

Under the initiative, disrupting the revenue generation capabilities of pirate websites becomes the key focus, with advertising on the copyright infringing websites replaced with official police force banners, warning the user that the site is under criminal investigation.

The strategy purportedly delivers results and cutting off the money supply for the rogue sites and reducing the economic basis for copyright infringement could be an effective measure. One that the telcos industry hopes will garner wholesale consensus.

The online piracy debate in Australia is quickly turning into a war of attrition between internet service providers and the rights holders, and the telcos are keen to ensure that right holders do their part to curb copyright infringement.

Regulation is not the silver bullet to end online piracy and finding a viable solution will require all parties to perhaps ditch the hyperbole and find common ground. 

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