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Q&A: Why money doesn’t motivate file-sharers

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By Nicole Kobie

Posted on 8 Dec 2010 at 14:11

Piracy is so difficult to battle because file-sharers are motivated by altruism and not financial gain, according to one academic.

Joe Cox, an economist at the Portsmouth Business School, believes file-sharers who post content online see themselves as the “Robin Hoods of the digital age,” according to a study he’s published in the journal Information Economics and Policy.

Such insight could help drive policy and find ways to prevent illegal downloads, he claims. We spoke to him to find out more.

Q. Why did you decide to look at file-sharing?

A. A lot of the academic effort which has focused on file-sharing has been on lost revenues, to say how much the record industry and the film industry has lost as a result of people illegally downloading content.


I was more interested in the behavioural motivations. To me it seems pretty obvious why you might want to illegally download a music track or a film or a video game, but what I was really interested in is the people who make the content available in the first place, because there doesn’t seem to be much to be gained for them, at least not materially. They presumably already bought the material to make it available in the first place.

I called them seeders – it’s a pretty standard term for people who make the material available – distinguishing them from leechers, who just take material from others but don’t give any back. I’ve never seen anything published which looks at those two groups to look at their different motivations.

Q. What was the motivation for seeders?

A. For the leechers, pretty obviously, the major motivation was financial. They wanted to acquire music or films without paying for it because it was cheaper than going out to buy it.

What was interesting was the difference with the seeders, and it was quite apparent that financial motivations were nowhere near as prevelant; it was a kind of altruism.

Their main motivation was that they were seeking notoriety, peer recognition, peer esteem, some sort of feeling of getting one over on the system. It was a much richer tapestry of different things contributing to the decision to go ahead and make the content available.

Q. With that in mind, how should illegal sharing be prevented?

A. The survey data suggested there was a deep-seated belief that this type of activity shouldn’t be illegal, that there was no criminal act involved.

That makes it very hard to deter with advertising to suggest that you’re funding piracy, that you’re a cheap knock-off merchant, because they believe what they’re doing is morally right. And it’s these guys that record labels and movie studios are most interested in getting to. They’re the source.

Q. You’ve said the Digital Economy Act won’t work, so what do you suggest?

A. Technology has developed to such a point now that you can’t turn back the clock and you can’t change the digital revolution – it’s a bit like King Canute trying to halt the advance of the tides.


I think there needs to be a more radical rethink in how the arts and the creative industries are funded.

The phenomena of the record label and the movie studio pretty much come into their own in the 20th century and I think they are a 20th century phenomena. Before that opera, ballet, and music were funded on a system of patronage.

I think we need to consider potential funding from the public sector. Coming at this from an economics perspective – I’m an economist – we have a particular type of common good that we look at, called a public good.


I would argue that these days music and movies are public goods: you can’t really exclude people from using them

The characteristics of this are you can’t exclude people from enjoying the benefits of it if they don’t pay for it, and if any one person consumes the good it doesn’t affect anyone else’s ability to consume it too. Classic examples are things like street lighting or national defence.

I would argue that these days music and movies are public goods. You can’t really exclude people from using them. The internet is giving them the availability to share this material at will and it’s virtually impossible to stop that. And with the digital nature of material, you can make perfect reproductions and share it to others.

What economists say will happen if you have a public good and look to the free market, the market won’t provide any output because everyone will just look to free-ride, and not pay themselves. But if no-one pays the good doesn’t get produced.

Q. And public funding is the way to get around that?

A. With street lighting or national defence, these are things that government funds through taxation. It would probably be a bit radical to say the government should fund the creative industries through taxation, but there are creative ways knocking around at the moment.

For example, you could try introducing non-commercial use levies on iPods or DVD players. It’s a lump sum you would pay over and above the purchase price when you buy the device, with the understand that you’re going to use it to access digital content.

If that money was collected into a pot, it could be distributed to record labels and movie studios to give proper compensation to rights owners. And then there could be a relaxation on how people access the material. You could keep track of downloads to make sure the most popular artists get the most money.


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