Government advisory body the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property (SABIP) commissioned University College London (UCL) to undertake research into online consumer behaviour in the UK and its potential impact on business and government policy.
UCL's 85-page report suggests that users of file-sharing networks are illegally consuming billions of pounds-worth of content for free each year. Its report, Copycats? Digital Consumers in the Online Age, found that the scale of the problem of illegal downloading is "huge and growing" but "there are many unknowns about the figures".
"Sixteen percent of UK consumers are said to regularly 'file share', and whilst the figure is said to have remained 'flat' in the recent past, various studies concede that the figure could be much higher," it says.
Between 44% and 79% of global internet traffic is taken up with file sharing, according to the report. But the proportion of file-sharing content that is unauthorised or otherwise illegal is unknown.
Music industry body the IFPI reported this year that there were 890 million unauthorised music downloads in the UK in 2007 through file-sharing compared to 140 million paid-for downloads. The UK film industry claimed that there were just under 100 million illegal downloads of DVDs in 2007.
The report's authors suggest that "unauthorised downloading has become a simple reflex for some digital consumers."
"To the digital consumer the economic 'message' of 'Internet choice' is either confusing or a growingly accepted norm," says the report. It notes that internet users can access free email, word processing, internet telephony and social networking services that historically would have a cost attached.
"The vast availability of this kind of 'free content' changes existing perceptions of 'ownership' and utility," it says. "One of the great concerns of industry from these perceptions is the ease with which digital content can be de-coupled by digital consumers from its original platform (and the advertising that supports it) and from its real-world revenue stream. Perhaps a Rights Agency will help in this area."
The establishment of a digital rights agency to encourage compliance with copyright law was proposed in the Government's Digital Britain report earlier this year.
"However, we would argue from the empirical evidence, that when the digital consumer also gains access to all types of unauthorised digital content through file sharing mechanisms of various kinds to use in any number of ways, they are doing so within an environment where the idea of choosing 'free' is confusingly commonplace," it says. "This changes not only perceptions about 'ownership' and 'sharing' but – perhaps most crucially – 'value'."
Another finding of the report is that attitudes and behaviours towards property in the online and physical worlds are very different.
"If all who undertake unauthorised downloading, uploading and sharing were prosecuted, up to seven million Britons would have a criminal record. If all content online was instead 'free' and downloading was de-criminalized could new business models such as sponsorship, advertising and the bundling of access with content pay for the variety, depth and quality of the content we current enjoy?" ask the authors. "And, if the culture of online behaviour does require IP laws to change just for specific industries, could such laws operate also in the physical realm?"
The authors do not attempt to answer these questions.
They acknowledge that "it has never, ever been easier to break the law"; and they note that, "online there are no 'shoplifters will be prosecuted' signs, or government health warnings" but they stop short of saying that there should be.
The report concludes by recommending further research.
Minister of State for Intellectual Property David Lammy said, "As SABIP's report shows, illegal downloading robs our economy of millions of pounds every year and seriously damages business and innovation throughout the UK. It is something that needs tackling, and we are serious about doing so."
"However, it is also an international problem that needs an international solution through countries working together," said Lammy. "We can't expect 12 year olds to become copyright lawyers before they can switch on a computer, but we can educate people on enforcement and work towards getting the right people caught and punished-wherever they live."