Downloading copyrighted material without paying is supposedly a sneaky, clandestine activity, concealed from the raging, helpless copyright owners beneath some kind of impenetrable digital cloak. But it's not that clandestine.
Companies offering services to protect intellectual property have become adept at gathering information from peer-to-peer file-sharing networks about what's being shared and in what quantity. One of these, Envisional, recently published statistics showing that while music piracy is becoming relatively passé, the ransacking of films and television shows is significantly on the rise. Both have risen by nearly a third in the past five years; the top five box-office hits were downloaded 1.4 million times in Britain last year, with popular television shows trailing closely behind. While there seems to be an increasing appetite for buying digital albums – up by nearly 20 per cent in the USA in the past 12 months – it's film that's become the freeloading frontier.
What's the cause? With broadband speeds increasing, video-compression technology improving and more sharers on the networks, it no longer takes 36 deeply frustrating hours to get hold of a badly ripped copy of Caddyshack (pictured); you can have it in a matter of minutes. File-sharing software is easier to use than it used to be, and the torrents themselves are easier to find, with The Pirate Bay a convenient central hub. Playing that file back on a television, as opposed to a laptop screen, is no longer beheld as if it were some kind of modern miracle. And to generalise grossly, there's a generation growing up whose consciences aren't necessarily troubled by owning media they haven't paid for. Indeed, one file-sharer gave an interview last week to the BBC in which he congratulated himself for creating jobs within the internet industry by demanding and paying for faster broadband. This argument from the righteous crusader lines up alongside the mystified consumer ("Why would I want to buy something without knowing what it's like first?" – try that angle next time you're in a restaurant) and the confused economist ("Digital copies cost nothing to manufacture, so effectively I haven't stolen anything.")
At the opposite end of the debate sits FACT, the Federation Against Copyright Theft, which regularly issues stern press releases that appear to demand we be transported to some non-digital utopia where consumers are humble, honest and conscience-driven, and the few that aren't are brutally punished. It responded to Envisional's report by claiming film piracy costs British industry £500m a year, and while there's undoubtedly a big financial knock-on effect, many claims of this kind are based on the mistaken impression that a free download is a lost sale. It isn't; people amass digital media because they can do so for free, and if they couldn't, they may well spend their money on cake, paperclips or horse-riding instead.
Between these two extremes sits the more pragmatic Dr David Price, who compiled Envisional's report. "[Content producers] need to compete with piracy," he says, "and get their content out there... as quickly and as cheaply as possible." He's right. The recent decline in album piracy can partly be attributed to the likes of Spotify, which fulfils the "try before you buy" demand with a legal service that's free, and offers a limitless digital jukebox for those who pay monthly. Equally, Steam has soaked up 70 per cent of the $4bn (£2.5bn) market for online delivery of video games by providing a convenient service that makes the process of torrenting look as gruelling and pointless as manufacturing your own cornflakes. Whether the film industry will learn from the lessons that the music industry spent a brutal decade getting to grips with is unclear, but the 18-month spat over trading terms that still prevents anything by Universal Pictures appearing in LoveFilm's UK store might indicate some intransigence.
You could argue the film industry has more to lose from file-sharing, simply because most people watch films only once. While games are played repeatedly and albums are regularly revisited, films are more disposable. Powerful, impressive, moving – but after 90 minutes, done with. You download, you watch, you delete the evidence. Or you think you do... but you've just become another piracy statistic.