Tougher laws won't stop internet piracy: study

Governments can't effectively legislate consumers into getting their online media legally, says study.
A music fan downloads files from a computer to an iPod. A new study suggests that relying on tougher legislation to stop online piracy simply won't work. (Jacques Brinon/Associated Press)

As the federal government pushes to modernize the country's copyright laws, a new study suggests that relying on tougher legislation to stop online piracy simply won't work.

Bill C-32, the Copyright Modernization Act, would crack down on internet theft of music, movies, e-books and the like. It would also bring Canada in line with World Intellectual Property Organization Internet treaties. 

However, a study published by the U.S. Social Science Research Council concludes that governments can't effectively legislate consumers into getting their online media legally.  Media Piracy in Emerging Economies is the first major independent study of internet piracy in countries such as Russia, Brazil and South Africa, and was funded in part by Canada's International Development Research Centre.

It found that anti-piracy education has done little to stigmatize illegal downloading in emerging economies and that market conditions are directly to blame.

"The failure of legal markets to provide access to goods at prices that are affordable in terms of local incomes fuels a situation in which high piracy becomes the primary form of media access," said study editor Joe Karaganis.

According to the study, a copy of Microsoft Office is five to 10 times more expensive in an emerging economy like Brazil or South Africa, compared to prices in the U.S. or Europe.

The council's data shows that a decade of increased copyright enforcement has not slowed piracy. It suggests that piracy rates as high as 90 per cent will continue until better competition pushes prices down.

The findings should send a strong message to developed economies such as Canada, said internet law expert Michael Geist.

Competitive pricing is key

Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa, said what really drives consumers to respect copyright is reliable service and competitive pricing. He cited iTunes as one business that has used those techniques to lure consumers away from illegal downloading.

But rather than reshaping business models, Geist said, many media industries continue hold out for legal reforms like Bill C-32. 

"I think what this study shows is that there is just no reason to sit and wait for the laws. It's not that you don't need laws, you do need them. But it's not laws that are ultimately going to drive people toward authorized marketplaces, it's viable, effective, fair services that meet consumer demand," he said. "So much of this has very little to do with the law or tougher enforcement or trying to educate people about piracy."

Geist also noted that piracy rates in Canada are among the lowest in the world.

Although Bill C-32 has spawned debate on digital locking and copying for educational use, many industries affected by illegal downloading support strengthening Canada's copyright law.

The Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) says it's essential that copyright in Canada be modernized.

"The last time the Copyright Act was amended was in 1997, and since then technology has advanced rapidly," said CAB lawyer Gabriel Van Loon. "A lot of provisions in the act don't actually reflect or deal with those changes in technology."

Having a law that directly addresses digital media is critical in preventing copyright infringement online, he said.

"Right now, I would say most people don't have a clear understanding as to what's legal and what's illegal, and it's hard to govern your behaviour … if you don't know what you can do."