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Nearly half of us are pirates

A woman looks at a vendors' wares.

Forty-six percent of American adults would be considered copyright pirates, according to a study by The American Assembly at Columbia University. Limit that age range to 18- to 29-year-olds and that number jumps to 70 percent.

But if you dig into the issue of frequency of piracy, the numbers become very different. Out of an entire library of music and movies, piracy made up for 2 percent of adults for music and 1 percent for film. The study also finds that legal streaming services such as Netflix or Spotify are taking a significant bite out of the overall piracy numbers.

The study will be officially released in January but our guest, Joe Karaganis of The American Assembly, one of the authors of the study, says his team wanted to get their information out into the public discussion centered around the House of Representatives' proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. Contrary to assertions from the bill's sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the study says online piracy is not a large and epidemic problem.

From the report:

Large-scale digital piracy is rare.  Roughly 2 percent of Americans are heavy music pirates (for our purposes, those who have collections of more than 1,000 files and who indicated that they downloaded or copied most or all of them.)  Only 1 percent acquired these files primarily or exclusively through downloading.

Only 1 percent of Americans are heavy pirates of TV/movie content (i.e. possess more than 100 movies or TV shows and copied or downloaded most or all of them).

TV/movie piracy remains a marginal practice on any scale.  Only 14 percent of Americans have any TV/movie files on a computer or other device. Only 22 percent of this group (3 percent overall) get most or all of these files from file sharing.   Among 18-29 year olds, 7 percent do.  Only 2 percent of Americans possess more than 100 TV show or movie files.  Among 18-29 year olds: 4 percent do.

Only 3 percent of Americans possess very large digital music collections (over 5,000 music files).  Among those 18-29,  7 percent do.

Karaganis says the study asked participants about attitudes toward piracy. "We asked about why they copy materials," he says, "and we have data on this. We didn't release it because it's really all over the map. People have lots of reasons. Some of them don't want to watch commercials, some of them find the costs too high for movies or music, some of them just like to share -- and there, I think, you have a really important motivation, especially around music. Pretty consistently we find that sharing with family and friends is considered reasonable even if the material is infringing."

SOPA would allow law enforcement to block traffic to a site that a judge ruled to be providing pirated content or facilitating the discovery of that content. As for how people would react to SOPA's provisions, Karaganis says, "The best approximation of what the Stop Online Piracy Act would do is reflected in the question, 'Would you support the blocking of websites that provide access to pirated songs and videos if some legal content were also blocked?' Because nearly everyone agrees that some legal content will be blocked because these are pretty sweeping measures. And if you ask that question, American Internet users oppose blocking by 57 to 36 percent."

So you have a situation where people recognize the need for law but also find the ambiguities in the situation. There's gray area. "It's clear there's a lot of copying and sharing of music and video," Karaganis says. "Some of it downloaded, but a lot of it is not downloaded. In fact, computers are devices for copying and sharing things. so in a sense, these practices are just built into the technology in a very fundamental way."

Also on today's program, a talk with the Nerdist himself, Chris Hardwick. He tells us why he likes an app called Plain Text. It's a simple, no-frills notetaker application that hearkens him back to a time when the web was younger.

I ended up talking to Chris for a while about his new book, "The Nerdist Way," and about all things nerd-related. Find that interview here.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.
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