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Anti-piracy messaging may just encourage more piracy

Behavioral economics study suggests rights holders don't understand psychology

The anti-piracy campaigns can have the opposite effect and increase the misappropriation of protected content, according to research.

In a paper titled "Doing more with less: Behavioral insights for anti-piracy messages," published in peer-reviewed sociology journal The Information Society, Gilles Grolleau, professor of economics, law and society at ESSCA School of Management (Lyon, France), and Luc Meunier, professor of finance at ESSCA (Aix-En-Provence, France), argue that anti-piracy messaging focuses on the wrong things and ends up encouraging misbehavior.

The economic impact of piracy, the academics observe, is consequential. They cite various figures to that effect from industry groups without challenging them: an estimated 37 percent of software worldwide is pirated (BSA, 2018); an estimated 38 percent of people obtain songs unlawfully (IFPI, 2018); and US digital video providers lose between $29.2 and $71 billion annually to piracy (Blackburn, Eisenach, and Harrison 2019).

Yet this sort of litany of economic woe is just the sort of statistical broadside that fails to modify behavior when presented as a part of an anti-piracy campaign.

"Specifically, we argue that regulators and copyright holders backing these campaigns fall prey to 'the more-is-better heuristic,'" the authors argue in their paper.

"They inadvertently and counter-productively marshal the high number of victims (scope severity paradox, statistical victim bias), the high number of piracy actions (social norm trap), and the high number of arguments in disfavor of piracy or in favor of legal ways (excessive number of arguments, 'presenter bias') in anti-piracy campaigns."

Setting aside the inaccuracy of the term "piracy", which analogizes unapproved and sometimes unlawful content copying with maritime mayhem, part of the problem is that copyright holders and content consumers don't see things the same way. While rights holders try to categorize piracy as theft, the authors observe, infringers do not think of themselves as thieves and use terms like "file sharing" – which rights holders would consider a euphemism for unlawful file appropriation.

Thus, rights holders back anti-piracy media campaigns to promulgate their world view. But these campaigns fall short by focusing on the wrong things. The authors say research has established that "an identifiable victim elicits higher emotional reactions and willingness to act and help than numerous victims suffering from the same difficulties." And yet anti-piracy campaigns like the UK's "Get it Right from a Genuine Site" focus on the high number of victims rather than telling the story of a sympathetic victim.

Similarly, anti-piracy ads err, the authors say, by calling attention to the prevalence of piracy. They argue that when describing what people do (eg, piracy) while directing people to adopt opposite behavior often just encourages people to behave as others do. For example, a 2003 study (Cialdini) "found that messages and signs directed at discouraging theft, but informing visitors of the Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona, that many visitors were stealing small pieces of petrified wood, inadvertently increased the theft rate in comparison to the control situation."

Finally, Grolleau and Meunier observe that attempting to convince people to behave a certain way by presenting every available argument can be difficult because people will focus on the weakest argument. They cite the "You would not steal this car" anti-piracy ad, noting that it compared illegal downloading to stealing a DVD from a store (a reasonable comparison in their view) and stealing handbags, TVs and cars (less reasonable comparisons, again in their view). And as a result, they say, the video was widely parodied.

The authors conclude that instead of marshaling statistics and dictating desired behavior, rights holders might be better off expressing gratitude toward customers.

"Displaying descriptive information such as how widespread piracy is to paying users is ill-advised," they state in their paper. "Thanking users who choose legal means to get the desired products for their support might be more efficient." ®

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