Reading much of the current hype about peer-to-peer technology (P2P in geekspeak), you'd think it was a sign of the end of the world. Ever since Napster, P2P has become the whipping boy of the entertainment industry. This has lead to the prosecutions of controversial targets such as teenagers and grannies, along with calls to ban the technology itself.
At first glance, the figures are certainly frightening enough. According to Forrester Research, digital piracy led to a 35-40 per cent drop in sales in 2003. The cost in monetary terms has been estimated at over two billion dollars worldwide.
Dig a bit deeper and the situation is not so clear. Forrester's research shows that 36 per cent of illegal downloaders buy less music; this means that the majority buy the same amount or more. According to Pollara Canada, 28 per cent of people buying less music do so because of downloading; again, this means the majority have other reasons they're buying less music.
The estimate of a drop of 35-40 per cent doesn't tally too well with the reported drop of just 7.3 per cent in 2003. Even more suspicious is the lack of transparency in how these figures are obtained – according to EU research, the Motion Picture Association of America won't share its data on sales and rentals.
The high-profile campaign by Fact has used the spectre of terrorism to drive home the point. Sales of pirated DVDs allegedly fund terrorist groups. But Fact's chief admitted to the BBC that this wasn't widespread in the UK. Fact also fails to see that downloading movies from P2P networks isn't funding terrorism – no one's paying for them.
In one of the few well documented pieces of research on this (http://tinyurl.com/ctom3), researchers looked at the source of pirate movies available on the internet. They found 77 per cent of the movies they downloaded had originated from inside the industry. A mere five per cent were rips of DVDs. This indicates the best solution: go after the source. It's a smaller target base and will have a greater impact on the problem.
Banning technology is almost always a bad idea. Banning P2P tools because some use it for piracy would be a dangerous precedent. It's certain that FTP and web software were used for piracy before P2P came along. Should we ban those too?
Piracy is a crime, and no doubt it has a financial impact on the business. But finite resources should be targeted at the source of the leaks and the industrial piracy operations, rather than schoolgirls, grandmothers and useful software.