It’s time to beat on a dead horse. But this is a necessary beating, because people in the entertainment business are insisting the horse is still alive somehow. Look, there are flies buzzing around it, give it up. Of course I’m talking about piracy, illegal downloads of media normally sold at a premium price on various platforms. We wrote a news story on this when it broke; essentially, the European Commission paid a research firm somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000 USD to study the effects of piracy on sales numbers. After all, ask anyone in the entertainment industry and they’ll tell you piracy is harmful to the bottom line and therefore the health of the industry. Games, movies, books, so on and so forth all apply; you wouldn’t download a car, after all, right? Well, turns out, perhaps unshockingly, that’s not necessarily the case.
The study, which took place over many months and ended up at an intimidating 300+ pages in length, could not determine reliably that piracy had any effect at all on sales. There was one more solid data point that suggested box office opening periods for movies were more unstable due to piracy, but that’s it. Otherwise, the study could not conclude an effect one way or another on sales numbers due to illegal downloads. To quote the study directly, “In general, the results do not show robust statistical evidence of displacement of sales by online copyright infringements. That does not necessarily mean that piracy has no effect but only that the statistical analysis does not prove with sufficient reliability that there is an effect.”
Basically, this means that because of what piracy inherently is, it’s an intangible. There are too many factors around why people pirate to really be able to effectively determine a pirated copy is equivalent to a lost sale. Turns out, most of the arguments people who have pirated things make in their defense are generally true! Perish the thought, I know. It’s hard to fathom that anyone who pirates software or ebooks isn’t a horrible, moral black hole of a human being. Actually yeah, it totally isn’t, and you’re probably the actual bad person for making such judgments on people you (we’re using the generic “you” here, calm down) don’t know. Whoops!
One of the biggest factors in piracy is a concept known as “willingness to buy.” People are actually, for the most part, quite happy to pay for things. Piracy is quite easy, for just about anything you can get a hold of digitally. But people love to buy things in official capacity as well. In fact, many people who pirate also buy things. It isn’t a catch-all, zero sum situation. Sometimes people who pirate a thing go out and buy the same thing later, for myriad reasons.
With video games, it’s important to note things like demos and rentals are scarce these days compared to the past. Savvy people don’t like to blindly purchase products without having any idea what they’re getting into. They read reviews, watch preview, etc. People will pirate a game they’re unsure about if it means the $60 they spend later isn’t tossed down a drain. People also pirate for other reasons, such as to protest DRM, avoid giving money to devs for political reasons, or simply because while they can afford a computer and internet access, affording individual game releases is not feasible. In those situations, the player isn’t pirating instead of buying; if the option to pirate wasn’t there, the purchase most likely wouldn’t happen either.
It’s also why things like flash sales and umbrella services are so popular, programs like Spotify and iTunes are doing so well for music, and why Amazon’s Kindle does so well. People want to make purchases, but they want to do it in a way that’s convenient and unobtrusive. Again, it shows willingness to buy. Of course, that’s far too close to the truth, as messy and inconsistent as it sounds, and that’s probably why the European Commission buried this study when they received it in 2015. They published one article on it, about the aforementioned statistic on box office numbers. This was the only part of it cited, and the first public mention of the study. A German politician noticed this and used the European Freedom of Information legislation to acquire the study in full to get it out to the general public.
This event likely won’t get people to chill out about piracy. Statements and practices from smaller companies that attribute piracy to either “not a big deal” or “actually kind of helpful long-term” have been ignored, after all. As we’ve seen recently in other areas such as record-low box office numbers in 2017 being blamed on critics, the people at the top who don’t know anything about art will reach for anything other than themselves to blame on their mediocre products or bad business practices leading to low engagement. This may be merely another chapter in the long battle to open up art and media to everyone, instead of those with the deepest pockets.