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Piracy – Removing Content vs. Removing Access

July 8, 2015


Sometimes synthesizing research from several papers allows for insights not contained in any one of those papers.  Recently I’ve asked myself “Why is it that shutting down increased digital movies revenues, but blocking access to The Pirate Bay in the UK did not increase legal consumption?  Why did the shutdown of cause little to no increase in legal consumption in Germany?  After all, they are all piracy sites.”

The answer, I think, lies not in whether the action was a shutdown or a block, but rather what the antipiracy action in question actually did.  It’s about whether you’ve removed the actual content from the Internet, or removed one channel of access to the content.

Removing Content:

When Megaupload was shut down, the Department of Justice (in coordination with foreign authorities) raided the headquarters and seized the servers that hosted the content.  The next day, all of the content that had been available on Megaupload or Megavideo was gone.  Other sites that linked to that content now contained broken links.  Sure, some of that content also existed on other sites.  But the Megaupload content was gone.  And we saw that it caused digital movie revenues to increase by 6.5-8.5%.

Removing Access:

But when the UK courts ordered ISP’s to block access to The Pirate Bay, any content or links (torrent files) there were not removed from the Internet.  You could still access The Pirate Bay through a VPN.  Other sites could mirror the content on The Pirate Bay and unless ISP’s quickly realized this and also blocked access to those sites, you could access Pirate Bay content through said mirror sites.  And in our study, we found that this was exactly what happened – people found ways to access the content and did not move toward legal channels.

What about when was shut down in Germany?  That site was fully shut down so the content was removed from the Internet.  Except that never hosted content (or hosted very little) – it was simply a popular linking site that people went to in order to click a link to a copyright-infringing file hosted elsewhere.  When this site was shut down, other sites could and did easily link to the same content.  So the Kino shutdown has more in common with the Pirate Bay block in the UK than it does the Megaupload shutdown.

What Works?

Is there any way that removing access without seizing content can work?  Maybe.  Our website blocking study also showed that when 19 sites were all blocked within a month, pirates did increase legal consumption meaningfully.  So maybe removing access to one site does not inconvenience pirates as much as removing all Megaupload content from the Internet did, but it seems as if removing access to many sites can create enough inconvenience to matter.


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