The culture of copying

The culture of copying

Oh no: another boring report about piracy by a strange body with an obscure title.

That was my first reaction on getting hold of Copycats? Digital Consumers in the Online Age [2.76Mb PDF] – a report for the Strategic Advisory Board on Intellectual Property.

But when I read on, the report was full of fascinating insights into the way that we’ve all begun to think about the rights and wrongs of online piracy – or rather, “unauthorised downloading”, which is how this report for the government carefully describes it.

The authors, from University College London, point to evidence that what they amusingly call the “UK’s unauthorised downloading community” now stands at nearly seven million people, and they question the assumption that these are just teenagers and students – it seems older people are downloading too.

Simon Callow as Charles DickensThey emphasise the sheer scale of it – 1.3 million people online sharing content at one peer-to-peer network at midday on a weekday – and the fact that fast networks are going to make it ever easier to download Star Wars in three minutes or the complete works of Dickens in the blink of an eye.

But what’s really interesting are the authors’ conclusions about the way people think about this activity. They argue that there are now two cultures – digital and the physical world – and you can’t apply one set of rules to the other.

Illegal file-sharing is not only much easier than, say, lifting a CD out of a record store; it has become far more socially acceptable – “if everyone I know is doing it, how can it be wrong?”

They point to growing confusion amongst digital consumers as to what is or is not illegal in a world where there are now so many different ways of getting hold of content. So much on the internet is free – from VOIP calls, to services like Google Earth, to social networking services – that it’s hard to remember that you are expected to pay for some things.

Copycats? Digital Consumers in the Online AgeIn the words of the report, “the vast availability of ‘free content’ changes existing perceptions of ‘ownership’ and utility.”

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