A Tale Of Two Studies: Can File Sharing Both Harm And Help Sales?
from the why,-yes dept
So, let's try to look at why the two studies might both be right -- and what that might actually mean. First off, there's the obvious difference: the first study was about movies, and the second study was about music. While there are obvious similarities between the two, there are also significant differences, which may also lead to differences in consumption. Movies, for example, tend to involve more initial commitment, since it takes a lot more time to watch a movie. Music can be consumed much more easily. But, for music that people like, they're much more likely to listen to it over and over again, whereas most people will view a movie only once. Even for movies that people absolutely love, they're likely to consume it many fewer times than corresponding music that people love. And, on top of that, movies come together as a whole package. Music, for the past few decades, was packaged as a bundle of songs, in the form of an album. However, the rise of digital distribution for music has often broken apart that bundle, such that people focus on the single unit of the song, rather than the album.
In those differences are the seeds of why these two studies could both make sense. The recording industry, obviously, points to the massive decline in overall revenue from recorded music sales. That is indisputable. But, much of that can be explained by the breakup of the album into single song sales. When you're no longer forced to purchase 10 songs you don't care about just to get to the 2 you do, it shouldn't be any surprise that overall sales revenue may decrease. At the same time, because people can then spread their interest across more artists, something like file sharing can still increase digital distribution sales, because they sample via unauthorized sites, and then purchase a few songs from those they like best. The file sharing acts as a way to figure out where they want to spend their money, but because they can spend less to get more, overall sales dropped off. The market is much more efficient.
Movies, on the other hand, are somewhat different. There isn't a great unbundling happening there. And, often, consuming movies is done for a different reason and in a different manner than consuming music. Watching a movie is a way to "kill" an evening. Need something to do? "Let's watch a movie." As such, you'd expect movie watching behavior to remain more consistent, as people have the same "void" to fill at a regular interval. And, while alternatives (such as surfing the internet or playing video games) may fill that void, some percentage of the people will prefer movies -- and if one source of movies goes away, they will look for others, and some percentage of those are likely to switch to a pay service.
There's one other factor that may impact all of this as well, as hinted at in the post about the first study: the level of development of legal services. For years, we've seen one thing that is almost certainly true: when there are no legal services available, the amount of unauthorized use increases. Unauthorized use is almost always an indicator of an under-served audience. And, if you look the development of online music and movie offerings, authorized music services tend to be a lot further along in creating compelling, user-friendly offerings that people find to be "better than piracy." There are some movie services that are getting there, but movie services are more likely to be encumbered with DRM and annoying restrictions (e.g. "watch the whole thing in 24 hours or you lose it!").
If anything, this final point is the most compelling explanation to me for the different results in the two studies -- and why I'm less confident that the results of the first study will hold up in the long term, unless Hollywood finally allows the creation of more user-friendly online movie services (i.e., lower prices and less restrictions, which is where the music services have all gone). In the music world, more and more people are making the gradual shift to authorized services, because they really do provide a good overall experience. The file sharing that goes on tends to be complementary to all of this because it is one way that people can further sample and figure out what they like, which they can then support within an authorized context (especially since music people like is played repeatedly).
With movies, on the other hand, you have less of a need to "sample," since the product is often watched just once. And there, convenience becomes king. People will flock to the most convenient offering (convenience being a combination of a variety of factors, which may differ per each individual, but generally include elements of ease of use, pricing, overall selection of movies, ability to view in multiple places, ability to watch at different times, etc.) For many, Megaupload represented the most convenient offering, and after that went away, other services, sometimes pay services, represented the "next best option." But, those other services are still at risk of newer more convenient services re-emerging and taking back those movie-watchers.
In those cases, both studies "make sense," but the lessons they suggest may be somewhat different than the lessons put forth by the supporters of the studies. The authors and supporters of the MPAA study suggest that this proves that shutting down unauthorized sites is a reasonable goal. I think that may be looking too narrowly at the results, and discounting how much people are focused on the "most convenient" solution. An even better solution is to provide more convenient offerings, which would win over customers from unauthorized sites even if they aren't taken down.
Finally, I wanted to respond to the IFPI, which appeared to completely freak out about the European Commission study, claiming it was flawed:
IFPI believes the JRC study is flawed and misleading. The findings seem disconnected from commercial reality, are based on a limited view of the market and are contradicted by a large volume of alternative third party research that confirms the negative impact of piracy on the legitimate music business.The IFPI seems to be responding based on emotion, rather than fact, and possibly a misunderstanding of the data. The data directly supports the commercial reality, which is that digital music sales have been regularly increasing, which the IFPI itself records quite clearly. The decrease in overall recording industry revenue (the IFPI is misleading in talking about "the legitimate music business" because they really only mean the portion that is recorded music sales), comes from the decline in the sale of physical music: CDs. And the study only looked directly at digital distribution, not the impact on CD sales. The other studies that the IFPI refer to look at the connection between file sharing and CD sales, showing a general decline there, but much of that may just be from people shifting from physical (inefficient and wasteful) distribution to digital (efficient) distribution, in which case you'd expect a decline in overall sales, not because of "piracy" but because of less inefficient bundling and physical manufacturing and distribution costs.
The IFPI also repeats the BPI's misreading of the "Kantar Worldpanel" data. That is, they highlight that many people who fileshare don't buy anything, but then leave out the people who neither fileshare nor buy any music, thus setting up an apples and oranges comparison. They also cite the debunked HADOPI study, despite the fact that reports have already explained how the impact observed in that study likely had more to do with the introduction of new iPhones rather than HADOPI's three strikes policies.
But, really, the most ridiculous argument in the IFPI response is at the end:
The fundamental problem of the music market place remains as true as ever: why pay for music when you can get it illegally free?The fact that they still believe this to be true is the real problem with the legacy industry in one simple sentence. They still think the only way to compete is on price. That's clearly not true, as seen by the IFPI's own data, which consistently shows that massive numbers of people buy all the time, even when they can get it quite easily for free from unauthorized sources. As noted above, it's really about convenience -- which is a result of a combination of factors, of which price is merely one. Creating more authorized services that provide greater convenience than unauthorized sites is the most effective way to fight back. If the IFPI actually focused on providing more value, rather than freaking out every time piracy was detected, we'd be talking about what an amazing time it was for music today, rather than having this same silly debate all over again.
In the end, despite the IFPI's whining, these two studies do add valuable data to the debate. And while they may appear to conflict, I don't think they really do. The results both make sense in context, and viewed from a wider angle they suggest, still, that the best way to respond to unauthorized file sharing is to make authorized service more convenient.