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Some might say that the war against content piracy is being being waged on the wrong front...

Matthew Tagg, CEO of local ISP Web Africa, explains.

Figures from the IDC show that piracy went up a percentage point in SA between 2007 and 2008 – amounting to R3.1bn in industry losses. While many people justifiably bemoan the spiralling piracy rates occurring across the world, it's unlikely that we will see any changes in the numbers without a radical shift in the way entertainment content is distributed globally. As South African law stands, end-user piracy is not a crime and is difficult to enforce as an infringement of copyright law. Our law dates back to 1978 and the maximum fine that can be imposed on someone selling pirated software is R5,000 per ripped copy. Our piracy problem, however, is not really a legal matter.

As an ISP, we receive regular generic emails and warning letters from content providers and copyright holders in the US and Europe urging us to crack down on piracy. I don't believe it's realistic to expect local ISP's to police what is a global issue.


Getting hands on content

One can sympathise deeply with the plight of creative content producers, especially musicians, who have to deal with a stunningly different landscape from twenty years ago. Where music piracy once involved painstaking tape to tape dubbing, today your average teenager can 'share' literally hundreds of albums with friends in a matter of minutes, by simply using their cell phones or flash sticks. Making a living off album sales just isn't what it used to be, and the world of DVD piracy is fast following suit.

But here's the rub. Research from Australia shows that while pirating music and movies is obviously attractive on the cost front, one of the primary motivational drivers amongst pirates is actually getting one's hands on fresh content that has already been released in other countries. This might sound a bit impatient, until you consider that in 2007 it took an average of 17 months for TV programmes to be shown in Australia after first airing overseas - a gap that was on the increase at the time.

The global entertainment eco-system is very delicate and involves the presence of many different stakeholders, from distributors to advertisers, each of whom have specific needs related to different regions and markets. This eco-system sees content released in a staggered manner across the world, and sees movies, music and TV shows arriving on South African and Australian shores (amongst many others) far later than in the west. This is an old, well rooted system, and it's not at all suited to an Internet age where immediate access to entertainment is starting to be viewed by consumers as something akin to a human right.

A major driving force behind piracy therefore is a lack of content distribution maturity. Consumers are living an on-demand entertainment lifestyle, and if the only way to access current content within this lifestyle context is piracy, then so be it. If, on the other hand, new content is made immediately accessible via a flat distribution structure, it is likely that many current pirates will happily pay for it.

Piracy tools are growing exponentially in application and scope. South Africa, for example, is just entering the world of uncapped bandwidth. As internet speeds increase and bandwidth issues recede, piracy becomes easier and easier. To fight the scourge at end-user level using moral persuasion and threats of retribution is surely self defeating. Our reality is that, technically speaking, content distribution has changed fundamentally. The business models behind the technologies now need to change too. Simply put, countries like South Africa need to be allowed to become far more mature in their ability to access fresh content.

If and when this sort of global content distribution maturity takes shape we could definitely see a flattening out of the piracy spike. But until then, it's very unlikely that asking ISPs to police Internet users with respect to what they download and why they download it will have any meaningful effect on the phenomenon.