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Four of the UK’s largest ISPs will commence the sending of ‘educational notices’ to customers suspected of unlawful copyright infringement within the next few weeks as part of the Voluntary Copyright Alert Programme (VCAP), but is unlawful copyright infringement still a major problem in the UK? Is this latest scheme necessary? And will it effectively solve the issue?

This all stems back to the days of the highly controversial DEA (Digital Economy Act) from 2010 which proposed a ‘3 strikes’ plan to send threatening letters to identified infringers and even disconnect persistent offenders. Instead this much ‘friendlier’ approach aims to educate users about lawful alternatives. It’s also important to note that this scheme is voluntary and only encompasses the largest 4 UK ISPs at present – BT, Virgin Media, TalkTalk and Sky Broadband.

However since the initial controversy of the DEA and its transition into the current VCAP scheme the market has changed quite significantly, which leads us to wonder if copyright infringement is really that big a problem now, or if the increasing popularity of so-called lawful alternative services like Netflix and Spotify have inadvertently reduced the problem without Government and industry intervention?

How big is the problem?

In 2012 Ofcom published a study to discover just that. At the time the study found that 16% of users aged 12+ said they had ‘accessed online content illegally*’. At the time ‘illegal’ film content was the biggest problem equating to 31% of all content consumed illegally, with music coming in at 23% and eBooks at 11%.

Interestingly, when asked why they obtain content illegally, 54% stated because it’s free, 48% convenience, 44% quick and 26% because they can try it before they buy it. Similarly the three things stated that would make them stop were:

  • Availability of cheaper legal services
  • Availability of everything they wanted legally
  • Greater clarity about what was legal and what wasn’t

These studies remained ongoing and, based on further research, Ofcom stated:

The research demonstrated the clear demand for online access to copyright material. However, infringement was a minority activity; we estimated in 2013 that 17% of internet users consumed at least one item of infringing content, which equates to around a third (29%) of all consumers of online content.”

In 2015 the study was repeated. This time it estimated that 18% of UK Internet users aged 12+ had consumed at least one item of “illegal” online content. A slight increase on the previous study but, when we delve deeper, we see there was a significant decline from 21% to 16% in illegal film content and an increase in Netflix use from 13% to 21%, suggesting ‘legal’ alternatives such as Netflix are helping to reduce the problem. Interestingly the top three reasons for infringers to stop remained the same as in 2012.

Further research by Ofcom published in 2016, continued to support these findings and identified the following trends:

  • Over the next three years online copyright infringement is predicted to fall for all content types apart from ebooks.
  • The use of ‘peer-to-peer’ (P2P) file downloading to access unauthorised content continues to decline and is being replaced by content streaming. Social media sites are increasingly being used to identify sources of this content.
  • Content streaming services are making it easier for consumers to access legitimate online content on a wider range of devices.

So, what does this tell us?

Whilst the problem of copyright infringement remains, it seems to be at worst stable and at best decreasing in some areas, namely film. That appears to be mainly down to rising popularity of lawful alternatives on the market- something we had been encouraging the entertainment industry to adopt since 2010!

So is this scheme necessary and will it help? As always that’s a waiting game but evidence suggests it may help some infringers. The studies reported above clearly show some users remain unsure of which content is lawful and which isn’t, so an education programme could help to improve that. However, the scheme is unlikely to affect more savvy and persistent infringers. It’s clear from the same research that the best way to reduce this issue is to provide affordable and readily available lawful alternatives and to make highly demanded content available via these channels more quickly (e.g. the latest box office films). As we’ve stated many times before, instead of working against the industry and treating the Internet as a threat, the entertainment industry would reap the benefits and solve their issues if they just embraced the opportunities the Internet is creating for them and evolve to capitalise on them, like Netflix and Spotify et al are doing so successfully.

*Technically, copyright infringement is ‘unlawful’ not ‘illegal’ as it’s a civil matter not a criminal one. However, several of the studies use these terms interchangeably so we have used their wording with regards to the research for clarity.

Have your say!

Do you think copyright infringement remains a major issue? Do you think the likes of Netflix and Spotify are inadvertently reducing the issue? Do you agree the entertainment industry needs to evolve to embrace the Internet instead of fighting against it? Or do you think more needs to be done by Government and industry to help protect intellectual property? Let us know what you think with a comment below, we’d love to hear your views.

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