On a brisk morning, one of shuffling feet and plumes of foggy breath, police gathered near an unremarkable family home in Finland, preparing for a raid. They had a tip-off from the Copyright Information and Anti-Piracy Centre (CIAPC), an industry body originally founded to fight phonograph piracy in the 70s, that someone was downloading and sharing content. Illegally, of course.
It was a simple job. Piracy cases usually are. But as they stormed the house, they were left somewhat surprised. Due to the nature of the evidence against the household, they couldn’t be sure who was breaking the law — only that illegal activity was taking place. And in this case, their not-so-crime-hardened criminal was a nine-year-old girl wielding a ‘Winnie the Pooh’ laptop.
The young girl had attempted to download an album from ‘only-famous-in-Finland’ popstar, Chisu. On leaving the house, with “Winnie” safely bagged as evidence, the police told the girl’s father that it would’ve been “easier for all parties involved if [he had] simply paid the compensation” of around €600. The father argued that he’d already bought the CD when the nine-year-old’s download didn’t work — but for the CIAPC even attempting to download Chisu is illegal, regardless of whether it actually works or even if the content is owned on another medium.
It isn’t that surprising that a young child, who been alive fewer years than I have fingers, was able to illegally download an album. Despite a slight learning curve, ‘torrents’ have become mainstream. They’re basically tiny files packed with information that tell software installed on your ‘Winnie the Pooh’ laptop where to source the thousands of fragments that make up the song, film or whatever it is you’re downloading. The software then downloads these little chunks of data from people across the globe and stitches them together piece by piece. Depending on how damaged the copper lines are in your area, you can have a brand new album or movie or game or piece of software in a matter of minutes.
To fight back against rampant piracy, industry anti-piracy bodies like CIAPC, as well as studios and content distributors, started surveillance campaigns to monitor users illegally accessing their content. In this case, the Finnish home’s IP address was recorded and then cross-referenced with records from an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to find their physical address. What happens next can vary depending on local laws. If a settlement can’t be reached, a fine could be issued, your Internet cut, or you might be taken to court. If you’re particularly unlucky, as in this case, the police could get involved. For most people, however, downloading content under copyright has become a normal part of a ‘connected’ life. And up till now there haven’t been any consequences (except for a slight twinge of the conscience). It’s easy and, well, everyone’s doing it… Right?
While it mightn’t quite be ‘everyone’, recent reports (that usually coincide with a Game of Thrones finale), certainly suggest a significant chunk of Aussies still download content illegally. A Neilson survey found that more than 2.8 million Australians visited the two largest torrent sites, The Pirate Bay and Kickass Torrents, during May. The survey couldn’t determine how much they downloaded, but the results suggest a seemingly insatiable appetite for content.
“Australia, I’m sorry to say, is the worst offender of any country in the world when it comes to piracy, and I am very concerned that the legitimate rights and interests of rights holders and content creators are being compromised by that activity,” Attorney-General George Brandis said during a recent Senate estimates hearing.
“We want to do something about that.”
Lucky for Brandis, that something is underway. We’re currently in the midst of serious legislative changes and court action in a concerted effort to change how Australians access their media.
While we haven’t yet had any Aussie reports of ‘Winnie the Pooh’-style laptop raids, a recent High Court decision could make anonymous downloading much more difficult. In April this year, a federal court judge ordered a handful of ISPs to identify thousands of account holders whom they allege illegally downloaded the film Dallas Buyers Club. Dallas Buyers Club LLC and Voltage Pictures, the plaintiffs in this case, collected a list of Australian IP addresses of those illegally downloading the Academy Award-winning film using software from a private German-based firm called Maverick Eye. Essentially the firm pretended to be downloading the file and logged every Australian IP address that served them a tiny fragment of the movie. They then pushed ISPs to divulge the customer information associated to their IP addresses. When the ISPs refused, they were taken to court.
But while we’ve seen cases like this come and go, this time it’s important because the studio actually won. The court ruled that the ISPs had to hand over the identities of 4726 of their customers, potentially setting a dangerous precedent. In the short term, those thousands of Australians could face fines. In the long term, iiNet (one of the six ISPs involved) argues we could see rounds of ‘speculative invoicing’ where downloaders receive vague accusations of piracy from movie studios claiming significant losses and asking for outrageous reparations with not-so-subtle threats of legal action.
But others, such as John Stanton (CEO, Communications Alliance, which represents telecommunications and Internet companies), claim the ruling has put protections in place to avoid the worst of those overseas practices. This means that the IP issuing fines have to run their letters alleging illegal downloading by the court to check the language so that it is not "threatening". The IP holder (in this case Dallas Buyers Club LLC) is also required to pay the ISP’s costs in identifying and providing the necessary information to the company.
Given the above, companies might be forced to carefully weigh up whether the cost of legal action might outweigh possible compensation payable from downloaders. It has been noted that Australia’s system is generally one in which claims are to be related to actual losses rather than punitive (or as in Finland and the United States also speculative) which might further restrict funds sought to compensate for actual losses. This is a situation very different to the Finnish case above, where the amount claimed (€600) had no relationship to the cost to the IP holder (who in that case pointed out to the girl where she might legitimately download the song free of charge).
The case might end up being a moot point for most Australians anyway — very soon we mightn’t even be able to access torrenting sites. The Australian Government, with support from the opposition, recently passed legislation approving an Internet filter specifically targeting sites that collate and organise torrents. This is problematic for a number of reasons — mostly because the process of blocking a website on the Australian Internet is not transparent — and it arguably opens the floodgates to block anything that the government of the day isn’t enamoured with.
“It’s a very dark day for the Internet in Australia because there’s been bipartisan support for this Luddite censorship bill,” Dr Matthew Rimmer, an associate professor at the ANU College of Law, was quoted saying when the legislation was passed.
“I think the larger question will be what sites will be affected? …Will there be collateral damage?”
It’s this “collateral damage” that people are concerned about as thousands of legitimate sites could accidentally get blocked in the crossfire. In one example, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) accidentally blocked access to 250,000 legitimate websites by providing a server IP address rather than the targeted site’s specific URL. The most concerning aspect of the story, however, is that the mistake only came to light after months of pressure and campaigning.
Dr Eric Loo, journalism lecturer at UOW, argues that a filter won’t even stop illegal downloaders for long because “tech savvy users will always find ways to circumvent the law.
“Circumvention technologies developed by ‘hactivists’ show how futile it is for governments to interfere with open access to the Internet,” he told me.
What all this means has yet to be determined. Although it’s unlikely to result in raids on nine-year-olds’ laptops, the combination of legislation and court action could, at the very least, make people begin to question whether we can download illegally with no repercussions.
Bruce Meagher, the Director of Corporate Affairs at Foxtel, isn’t expecting much change.
“We don’t think it is efficient, we don’t think it is necessarily good for consumers if copyright owners spend all their time trying to prosecute people,” he said at the time of the Dallas Buyers Club LLC versus ISPs verdict, “We would rather educate people and encourage them to change their behaviour.”
According to David Leaupepe, the longhaired, hulking lead singer of popular Sydney-based band Gang of Youths, however, this isn’t a moral issue.
“I’m going to be pretty straight forward,” he told me, “I don’t give a flying horse’s [expletive deleted] about music piracy. It’d be idiotic to say that it hasn’t affected GOY [Gang of Youths], because on a macro-level it affects all musicians. [But] I don’t necessarily believe that my own personal recorded output and artistry should be [sold] in the way that the time-honoured industry frameworks intended.”
He uses the analogy of art to explain how he reached his conclusion.
“I do not have to pay to view a picture of the Mona Lisa on Google Images, nor do I pay the da Vinci estate a fee when I save it to my hard drive.
“If I wanna see that [expletive deleted] in person though, I pay the Louvre a fee to witness the fitness.
“I definitely do think people should pay to use my music to sell something or soundtrack a moment in a television show or in a motion picture. [And if they really want to support us], they can buy my merch or non-bootlegged vinyl or pay to see us in concert.”
He’s quick to give his thoughts a sort-of disclaimer, noting that he definitely doesn’t speak for all, or even the majority of, artists.
“This is just what I believe in regards to Gang of Youths.” He told me, “It doesn’t apply to everybody else because I didn’t make everybody else’s music.”
The straight haired, soft spoken, scarf-adorned Kevin Parker, lead singer of internationally renowned Australian band Tame Impala, is similarly unsure about piracy.
It's hard to really understand just how much time, effort and money goes into even the smallest amount of film or television or book
“I feel like music will be free sooner or later, and I think I’m all for it,” he said earlier this year. “There’s all this talk of music needing a monetary value, this ownership of music, even that it needs a physical form. But intrinsically … it’s music, it should be better than that.”
“Some of my most important musical experiences were from a burnt CD with songs my friend downloaded for me at a terrible digital quality.”
Despite what the movie industry might be trying to teach me, downloading music or a movie isn’t like stealing a handbag. I’ve always mentally justified illegally downloading — listening to and sharing music — because I’m not depriving someone else of that content. It’s just a copy.
The University of Wollongong’s Professor Marett Leiboff, however, argues that I am still depriving someone of what they deserve: money to make a living from what they’re doing.
“People always think — I have the tangible object or digital access so I can do what I like with it. But of course that isn’t what copyright law says… If people don’t get valued for their creative outputs and efforts, and the law doesn’t support this creativity, then ultimately there will be nothing much to watch or see or read unless we produce it ourselves.
“It’s hard to really understand just how much time, effort and money goes into even the smallest amount of film or television or book,” she told me.
“Because we see the end result, most of us have no idea that it costs a fortune to create… Even if people have home studios, music still takes time to create and record. So unless we create for the love of it, and expect that actors and make up artists and writers shouldn’t get paid for their work, … we have to accept that [we won’t get new content] if there is no way to pay for it to be made.”
Dramatic advances in technology — beginning with the introduction of the cassette and photocopier in the 1970s — have played a significant role in our changing relationship to ownership.
“Previously, those who could afford to copy had to have access to expensive technology like printing presses or had the ability to make vinyl records, or even before that, set up broadcasting studios,” Professor Leiboff continued. “With access to VHS and the PC in the 1980s, individuals could gain access to content and then share it, changing attitudes towards content.”
Technology hasn’t just changed distribution, content creation has been transformed by the ubiquity of iPhones and mobile photography. UOW alumna Grace McBride, festival and brand manager for Tropfest, Australia’s most prestigious short film festival and the largest of its kind in the world, told me that they quite accidentally benefitted from the transition to YouTube-style content filmed on ultra portable devices.
Tropfest had its first festival, then small enough to fit in a small room, in 1993.
“Back then it was quite difficult to make a film. You needed special equipment and know-how. But now you can largely put something together on a mobile phone or tablet.
“In many ways we were ahead of our time without quite meaning to be. Especially considering the move towards short video. That’s only set to continue: in 2017, for example, 76 per cent of all content will be consumed via video. We’re very well placed to benefit from this,” she said.
There’s no doubt that things are changing quickly. “Tropfest is in a completely different space than it was a few years ago. We’re a very different model — but we’re very much engaged with how the space is changing.”
This is evidenced by Tropfest’s pivot towards even shorter video — from seven minutes to seven seconds. TropVine, as it’s called, is a platform for super short, easily shareable videos (usually on loop), and it’s seeing explosive growth.
Traditional broadcasters have struggled to compete with this style of short, sharp, addictive content and are slowly beginning to change their focus. SBS2 broadcasts Tropfest’s short films, but it also launched its own on-demand streaming service, says Emma Losco, a UOW alumna who works across SBS’s public relations.
“We’ve had to really think about how we connect with Australians,” Losco told me.
“The shift to the Internet caught a lot of players by surprise. I guess we’re lucky here at SBS — we had the opportunity to invest resources in our online On Demand platform early.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to go to where the people are. We had to change our mindset away from the traditional platforms: it’s not all about TV viewing anymore.”
“We are constantly shifting the way we think. In the past, PR strategy around SBS’s programs was about getting people to watch the television broadcast. But now it’s equally important for to get eyes to our On Demand streaming service.”
It’s argued that the sluggish move towards hosting content online has been the real reason piracy has flourished in Australia. Survey after survey indicates that punishing and threatening consumers doesn’t actually work. So what does? Like SBS found, it’s content that’s easily accessible and competitively priced.
A recent survey, called the Online Copyright Infringement Research Paper, commissioned by the Department of Communications, surveyed 2630 media consumers and found that 43 per cent of respondents had pirated at least some content during the survey period. This is compared to just 26 per cent of respondents in the same UK study.
The respondents unsurprisingly were drawn to the convenience, speed and price (or lack thereof) of piracy. More than a third, however, said that they would stop illegally downloading if legal pricing was more competitive. Another third said that if content was available in Australia as soon as it was released elsewhere, they would take the legal option.
It’s oft repeated, but competitive legal options will reduce piracy — and Australian’s have shown that they will pay for content if it’s convenient and competitively priced. That’s starting to happen and we’re already beginning to see results.”
One year after on-demand music service Spotify’s launch in Australia, for example, rates of music piracy fell by an incredible 20 per cent. During the same period, rates of film and software piracy remained stubbornly high.
Spotify has shown that people who pirate music are willing to pay for it
“Spotify has shown that people who pirate music are willing to pay for it,” Rene Chambers, a UOW alumna based out of New York and working across a number of roles at Spotify, including label relations, told me.
Around the world, Spotify has more than 20 million customers paying around US$10 a month. In Australia, Spotify dominates the music subscription market — one in four Australians have tried the service and a recent ComScore survey has Spotify tagged with almost 2 million active users.
Spotify’s success is rooted in a ‘freemium’ model. A free tier allows unlimited access to music interrupted by advertisements while a Premium tier, which costs $12 a month in Australia, is ad free and has extra features. Paying customers are, of course, more profitable for the company and its label stakeholders, but Spotify argues that its success lies in having both. Most people start out as free users, but as they get invested and spend more time on the platform, they transition from free to paying customers. It’s this gradual move from free to paid that Spotify argues has made it successful where competitors have failed.
“80 per cent of people paying for Premium started out on the free service — which is just huge. It’s absolutely unprecedented. That’s a lot of people who are now paying for music that typically wouldn’t have,” Chambers told me.
Despite evidence that this system works, freemium is not without critics. Taylor Swift pulled her music from the service in late 2014 because she argued the ‘free’ tier devalued music — both financially and in principal.
“Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable.” Swift said at the time, “Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is.”
In response to the criticism from Swift, Chambers doesn’t hesitate: “Two. Billion. Dollars. That’s how much Spotify has paid to labels, making it their second largest source of revenue. That’s money coming into the industry that just didn’t exist before our launch.”
There’s no easy answer to any of this. It’s murky and there’s no real winner. All I know is that the music industry gets $120 a year out of me that they wouldn’t otherwise have. And as legal options begin to proliferate at fair price points, and with content that people actually want, the slow psychological shift away from illegal downloading will continue.
At least for me, Spotify has replaced the need to illegally source music. And for now at least, I can sleep easy knowing my ‘Winnie the Pooh’ laptop is safe. Well, until the next episode of Game of Thrones that is.
- NICHOLAS UNDERHILL, AUTHOR
International Bachelor of Communication and Media Studies (Hons) (Journalism), UOW (2013)
Nicholas Underhill studied International Communications and Media Studies and graduated with Honours. With three other UOW alumni, he started Future Perfect magazine, a 128 page print publication offering a uniquely Australian perspective on world news and culture. During the week, he works at Spotify across PR and Social Media.
Say hello: contact Nicholas via Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter @nickcentric
- RENE CHAMBERS
Bachelor of Communication, Media Studies and Screen Studies (Advertising and Marketing), UOW (2004)
- EMMA LOSCO
Bachelor of Communication and Media Studies (Journalism), UOW (2011)
- GRACE MCBRIDE
Bachelor of Communication and Media Studies (Journalism), UOW (2009)