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The Socio-Technical Evolution of Intellectual Property Online: Creating Counterfeit Culture

Final Report Summary - STEVO (The Socio-Technical Evolution of Intellectual Property Online: Creating Counterfeit Culture)

Project context and objectives

Innovations in digital distribution (most often originating from outside the music recording and publishing industries) have significantly changed users' relationships to the music they consume. As early as 1999, Shawn Fanning's Napster had demonstrated that there was a demand for digital music and that consumers were willing to trade the music quality of CDs for convenience as they downloaded small, lossy files from huge, illegal, online collections.
Although the exchange of files across networks had previously gone on through bulletin board systems, binary newsgroups and semi-private ftp servers, Napster was a key innovation. Napster - along with eMule, BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer services - provided access to music that was often not then available from licensed online sources. As a social as well as technical innovation that demonstrated that unpacked, on-demand, and in time there was an untapped potential for a new model for music distribution and consumption.
These disruptive innovations changed consumers' relationship to music and had an undeniable impact on music sales. Indeed, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) has estimated that 'around 95 per cent of tracks are downloaded without payment to rights holders'.
The research undertaken at the University of Leuven, Belgium, as part of the STEVO project explored the current landscape of internet piracy for items such as music, software and films. Rather than looking specifically at piracy as an economic activity, the research developed an approach that centred on the socio-cultural aspect and regarded piracy as a 'practice' - a pastime that has accepted behaviours, standards and associated approaches.
The creative industries have, for example, linked music to the personal histories and achievements of music icons in anti-piracy campaigns. In the 'Music Matters' campaign users are told to 'make the ethical choice', where ethical behaviour involves spending money on music online. This idea that illegal downloading is about social deviance is one that was been further developed such as comparisons have made between downloading music and drink-driving and racism.
As consumers have become sophisticated in stating the case against economic anti-piracy arguments (see discussion of neutralisation below) the discourse surrounding piracy has become increasingly framed as one of morality rather than economics and legal rights. The trend in consumer-orientated messages has been to portray those who download as anti-social, immoral and outside respectable social interactions.
However, it cannot be assumed that consumers act with full knowledge of the legality of their actions. Further, more than 80% of consumers make ethics-related decisions on an ad-hoc and contextual basis. If consumers of pirated digital goods are violating ethical codes they appear to be doing it through being active in the current context of consumption. Their actions may be considered unethical by some but that does not necessarily mean the consumers are unethical in any form but the most absolute definition.
Consumers produce reasons to explain their pirating practice and 'neutralise' the paradigm set forth in anti-piracy campaigns. While the anti-piracy paradigm shapes the talk of consumers about their motivations to download illegally, it has little impact on the motivations themselves. It is no coincidence that many of the techniques of neutralisation that consumers offer - such as the 'unjustifiably high prices' that are charged for music and software and that 'it is normal and everybody does it'. It is important to note that the neutralisations offered by consumers to defend their practices are not necessarily erroneous or easily contradicted.

Project results
%The framing of illegal downloading through a priori assumptions about morality removes the opportunity to develop a contextual approach to this form of consumption. Piracy is removed from the social, political and narrative context in which it takes place. Those involved in the practice become labelled as deviant. Individuals become representative of a class of unethical or immoral behaviour with little latitude to situate behaviour, contextualise meaning or explore the individual's process of becoming deviant. Individual actors and actions can disappear under the category of consumer misbehaviour, or unethical consumer practices. Downloading is associated not with a range of consumption practices but with theft, wrongful doing and harm.
The consumption of music (both via purchase and unpaid downloads) is a complex set of practices. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to separate the legitimate and non-legitimate user despite what the moral paradigm implies. While legal and illegal consumption of media are linked (higher downloading tends to correlate to higher spending on legal media) we are unable to separate with any sense of reliability 'good consumers' and 'bad consumers'.