Britain has made a bold move: starting in 2015, internet pirates will no longer be prosecuted for their file-sharing. Persistent file-sharers will receive warning letters, but according to The Independent "no further action will be taken." (While the government isn't calling it decriminalization, that is effectively what it is.) In the long run, this is the only sensible option.
A full 46 percent of Americans are copyright pirates, according to a 2012 study by The American Assembly at Columbia University, which means they copy content from CDs and DVDs or illicitly download media, including movies, music, games, and software, from peer-to-peer sources such as BitTorrent. That figure jumps to 70 percent among young Americans aged 18 to 29.
And copyright holders can sue them for a lot of money. They can seek statutory damages of up to $150,000 per copyright infringement. In 2013, the Supreme Court upheld a verdict that saw 37-year-old Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a Minnesotan mother of four, pay record labels $222,000 for downloading and sharing two dozen copyrighted songs on the now-defunct file-sharing network KaZaA.
However, beyond a few headline-making cases in which some unlucky individuals have been singled out for punishment, the law remains mostly unenforced.
Now, that doesn't mean that piracy isn't an economic problem. It very definitely is. Not every instance of piracy necessarily means a lost sale for entertainment or software firms, but as the Recording Industry Association of America points out, "Since peer-to-peer (p2p) file-sharing site Napster emerged in 1999, music sales in the U.S. have dropped 53 percent, from $14.6 billion to $7.0 billion in 2013."
Pirating costs companies sales and deprives the economy of jobs. We're not talking about superstars, but technicians, songwriters, scriptwriters, editors, makeup artists, cameramen, and thousands more who work behind the scenes. The entertainment industry estimates that 750,000 jobs have been lost due to piracy.
But piracy is a fact of life. How can you police away something that 70 percent of young Americans do? The digital technological revolution has just made it too easy. The cost of copying and sharing entertainment is practically nothing (unless you're one of the tiny minority who are caught and fined). Digital files can be replicated endlessly and spread seamlessly. And trying to take down websites or file-sharing services that are violating copyright is a complicated and endless task.
The entertainment industry in recent years seems to have moved on to another, smarter proposition. If you can't eliminate the pirates, offer a service that is better quality, more reliable, and more accessible. Internet piracy is a messy game — files are often incorrectly labeled, sound quality can be poor, download speeds can be unreliable, and those who choose to pirate risk downloading spyware and malware. Services like Spotify, iTunes, Rdio, Beats Music, Netflix, Hulu, Sony, and Amazon are offering shed-loads of high-quality, legal entertainment for a reasonable price that — importantly — goes to compensate the creators. These services are already making big inroads, and piracy is falling as a result.
Times have changed. Time for the justice system to catch up.
Editor's note: This article has been revised since it was first published in order to more clearly include proper attribution to source material.