How Copyright Industries Con Congress

I’ve yet to encounter a technically clueful person who believes the Stop Online Piracy Act will actually do anything to meaningfully reduce—let alone “stop”—online piracy, and so I haven’t bothered writing much about the absurd numbers the bill’s supporters routinely bandy about in hopes of persuading lawmakers that SOPA will be an economic boon and create zillions of jobs. If the proposed solution just won’t work, after all, why bother quibbling about the magnitude of the problem? But then I saw the very astute David Carr’s otherwise excellent column on SOPA’s pitfalls, which took those inflated numbers more or less as gospel. If only because I’m offended to see bad data invoked so routinely and brazenly, on general principle, it’s important to try to set the record straight. The movie and music recording industry have gotten away with using statistics that don’t stand up to the most minimal scrutiny, over and over, for years, to hoodwink both Congress and the general public. Wherever you come down on any particular piece of legislation, this is not how policy should get made in a democracy, and it’s high time they were shamed into cutting it out.

The bogus numbers Carr cites—which I’ll get to in a moment—actually represent a substantial retreat from even more ludicrous statistics the copyright industries long peddled. In my previous life as the Washington editor for the technology news site Ars Technica, I became curious about two implausible sounding claims I kept seeing made over and over—and repeated by prominent U.S. Senators!—in support of more aggressive antipiracy efforts.  Intellectual property infringement was supposedly costing the U.S. economy $200–250 billion per year, and had killed 750,000 American jobs. That certainly sounded dire, but those numbers looked suspiciously high, and I was having trouble figuring out exactly where they had originated. I did finally run them down, and wrote up the results of my investigation in a long piece for Ars. Read the whole thing for the full, farcical story, but here’s the upshot: The $200–250 billion number had originated in a 1991 sidebar in Forbes, but it was not a measurement of the cost of “piracy” to the U.S. economy. It was an unsourced estimate of the total size of the global market in counterfeit goods. Beyond the obvious fact that these numbers are decades old, counterfeiting of physical goods imported in bulk and sold by domestic retail distributors is, rather obviously, a totally different phenomenon with different policy implications from the problem of illicit individual consumer downloads of movies, music, and software. The 750,000 jobs number had originated in a 1986 speech (yes, 1986) by the secretary of commerce estimating that counterfeiting could cost the United States “anywhere from 130,000 to 750,000” jobs. Nobody in the Commerce Department was able to identify where those figures had come from.

These are the numbers that were driving U.S. copyright policy as recently as 2008—and I’m still seeing them repeated in “fact sheets” circulated by SOPA boosters.  Finally, in 2010, the Government Accountability Office released a report noting that these figures “cannot be substantiated or traced back to an underlying data source or methodology.” Now, if a single journalist could discover as much with a few days work, minimal due diligence should have enabled highly paid lobbyists to arrive at the same conclusion. The only way to explain the longevity of these figures, if we charitably rule out deliberate deception, is to infer that the people repeating them simply did not care whether what they were saying was true. If I were a legislator, I would find this more than a little insulting

As Carr’s piece suggests, SOPA’s corporate backers have fallen back on new numbers, but they’re still entirely bogus:

The Motion Picture Association of America cites figures saying that piracy costs the United States $58 billion annually. Mark Elliot, an executive from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a letter to The New York Times that such piracy threatened 19 million American jobs

Only $58 billion! We’re making progress! So where does that figure come from? The source here is a paper released by the Institute for Policy Innovation, and authored by one Stephen Siwek, an MBA and principal of a consulting firm called Economists Incorporated that produces economic analysis for hire on behalf of (among others) businesses seeking to influence policy makers. That does not, in itself, invalidate the research, but we should at least begin with the recognition that we are not dealing here with impartial academic studies produced by a university or government research agency.

What does invalidate the “research” is the inappropriate use of “multiplier” effects to double—and triple—count loss estimates that were dubious to begin with. As the GAO report notes in its typically understated fashion:

Most of the experts we interviewed were reluctant to use economic multipliers to calculate losses from counterfeiting because this methodology was developed to look at a one-time change in output and employment.

In other words, Siwek is taking a method that’s useful for analyzing where in the economy we will likely see the effects of demand shifts, and pretending that it somehow reflects aggregate economic losses. As my colleague Tim Lee has pointed out, this is Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy on steroids:

[I]n IPI-land, when a movie studio makes $10 selling a DVD to a Canadian, and then gives $7 to the company that manufactured the DVD and $2 to the guy who shipped it to Canada, society has benefited by $10+$7+$2=$19. Yet some simple math shows that this is nonsense: the studio is $1 richer, the trucker is $2, and the manufacturer is $7. Shockingly enough, that adds up to $10. What each participant cares about is his profits, not his revenues.

So, to stay focused on movies, Siwek takes an estimate of $6.1 billion in piracy losses to the U.S. movie industry, and through the magic of multipliers gets us to a more impressive sounding $20.5 billion. That original $6.1 billion figure, by the way, was produced by a study commissioned from LEK Consulting by the Motion Picture Association of America. Since even the GAO was unable to get at the underlying research or evaluate its methodology, it’s impossible to know how reliable that figure is, but given that MPAA has already had to admit significant errors in the numbers LEK generated, I’d take it with a grain of salt.

Believe it or not, though, it’s actually even worse than that. SOPA, recall, does not actually shut down foreign sites. It only requires (ineffective) blocking of foreign “rogue sites” for U.S. Internet users. It doesn’t do anything to prevent users in (say) China from downloading illicit content on a Chinese site. If we’re interested in the magnitude of the piracy harm that SOPA is aimed at addressing, then, the only relevant number is the loss attributable specifically to Internet piracy by U.S. users.

Again, we don’t have the full LEK study, but one of Siwek’s early papers does conveniently reproduce some of LEK’s PowerPoint slides, which attempt to break the data down a bit. Of the total $6.1 billion in annual losses LEK estimated to MPAA studios, the amount attributable to online piracy by users in the United States was $446 million—which, by coincidence, is roughly the amount grossed globally by Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

So in a fantasy world where U.S. movie pirates don’t just circumvent blockage with a browser plugin, and SOPA actually stops all online movie piracy by American users, we get a $446 million economic benefit to the United States in the form of movie revenues, and presumably comparable benefits in music and software revenues? Well, no. Remember our old friend the Broken Window Fallacy. It’s true that some illicit U.S. downloads displace sales of legal products. But what happens to the money the pirates would have otherwise spent on those legal copies? They don’t eat it! As that same GAO report helpfully points out:

(1) in the case that the counterfeit good has similar quality to the original, consumers have extra disposable income from purchasing a less expensive good, and (2) the extra disposable income goes back to the U.S. economy, as consumers can spend it on other goods and services.

As one expert consulted by GAO put it, “effects of piracy within the United States are mainly redistributions within the economy for other purposes and that they should not be considered as a loss to the overall economy.” In many cases—I’ve seen research suggesting it’s about 80 percent for music—a U.S. consumer would not have otherwise purchased an illicitly downloaded song or movie if piracy were not an option. Here, the result is actually pure consumer surplus: The downloader enjoys the benefit, and the producer loses nothing. In the other 20 percent of cases, the result is a loss to the content industry, but not a let loss to the economy, since the money just ends up being spent elsewhere. If you’re concerned about the overall jobs picture, as opposed to the fortunes of a specific industry, there is no good reason to think eliminating piracy by U.S. users would yield any jobs on net, though it might help boost employment in copyright-intensive sectors. (Oh, and that business about 19 million jobs? Also bogus.)

Does that mean online piracy is harmless? Of course not. But the harm is a dynamic loss in allocative efficiency, which is much harder to quantify. That is, in the cases where a consumer would have been willing to buy an illicitly downloaded movie, album, or software program, we want the market to be accurately signalling demand for the products people value, rather than whatever less-valued use that money gets spent on instead. This is, in fact, very important! It’s a good reason to look for appropriately tailored ways to reduce piracy, so that the market devotes resources to production of new creativity and innovation valued by consumers, rather than to other, less efficient purposes. Indeed, it’s a good reason to look for ways of doing this that, unlike SOPA, might actually work.

It is not, however, a good reason to spend $47 million in taxpayer dollars—plus untold millions more in ISP compliance costs—turning the Justice Department into a pro bono litigation service for Hollywood in hopes of generating a jobs and a revenue bonanza for the U.S. economy. Any “research” suggesting we can expect that kind of result from Internet censorship is a fiction more fanciful than singing chipmunks.