Media Theft: An Internet Reality Check

Technology industry propaganda -- conceived to boost the bottom line of the advocate -- can easily lure us into believing that even the most shaky proposition is true. If you don't believe that common sense can be clouded by hype, just take a quick survey of the wreckage remaining from the dot-com era.


Among the most overheated issues this year is copyright protection of electronic media. From the proposed "broadcast flag" in digital television to the downloading of audio and video entertainment over the Internet, we're told there is a crisis. The world's largest media companies say they are being stolen blind by hordes of digital pirates.

Are these claims overstated? Thanks to the Pew Internet and American Life Project we are now getting some hard data about who is doing what among Internet users. As might be expected, there's been some exaggeration blowing in the wind. Not only that, but there's now evidence that media industry efforts to make Americans more aware of copyright issues have hit a tin ear.

First of all, the new data finds that only 29 percent of Internet users in the United Sates have ever downloaded music files, and that just 12 percent have both downloaded music and video files and shared files with others from their PC. The rest of us, making up 62 percent of Net users, do neither.

It should not be inferred that the Internet users cited above are necessarily violating any copyright laws. Most who have downloaded files say they do so to listen to music when and where they want, and many of those "downloads" may be from legally purchased CDs.

Many uploaded files may also be equally legitimate. In an era in which nearly anyone can afford to create music or video productions on a PC, file sharing often extends well beyond content produced by major media companies. "This (uploaded content) might consist of a band posting a song online for promotional purposes or a fan posting a song to share with friends," the Pew researchers found.


Compared with similar studies over the past couple of years, the Pew researchers found that though the number of Internet users has increased by several million, the percentage of sharers has changed little. The number has held steady despite the escalating legal threats over music downloading from the record industry in the past year.

Despite media industry attempts at "educating" the public to respect the legitimacy of copyrights, the new data shows that 67 percent of Internet users who download media content say they do not care about whether it is copyright-protected. Twenty-seven percent of the downloaders say they do care, while six percent said they don't have a position or know enough about the issue.

The number of "don't care" downloaders is climbing, despite the industry's massive awareness campaign. In a July-August 2000 survey, 61 percent of a smaller number of downloaders said they didn't care about the copyright status of their music files.

Who in America is doing all the downloading and uploading of media files? Pew found that downloaders and uploaders are mostly men (by a modest margin), and the most devoted among them are African-Americans or Hispanics (though Whites follow closely). Most downloaders are young adults -- probably students -- between the ages of 18 and 29. Most have broadband connections and most live in households earning less than $30,000 a year. And the vast majority care very little about the copyright status of the files they download.

On the other hand, the file sharers number about 26 million and make up 21 percent of the Internet population (as opposed to the 12 percent that say they both download and share files). The sharers differ mainly from the downloaders in that they tend to be younger, in school and more experienced at using the Internet. More than a third, about 35 percent, are full -- time students and 28 percent are part -- time students. Income and education level show almost no correlation with file-sharing behavior, Pew found.

Of the file sharers-82 percent, aged 18-29-the copyright status of the files they make available is not an issue. Their parents share a similar attitude. Of the downloaders who are parents, 57 percent join their kids in not caring about copyright status.

Though the Pew data indicates there are probably far fewer Internet users engaging in serious media piracy than has been suggested, it also indicates that the heavy -- handed legal tactics employed by the music industry in recent months has done nothing to enhance respect for copyright -- protected works. In fact, it seems to have done the opposite.

There might be a lesson here for television content owners who think the planting of a broadcast "flag" to restrict consumer copying is going to solve their problems. It could just open a new can of worms.

(The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a non-profit initiative, fully funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The results in this study are based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates between March 12 -- 19 and April 29 -- May 20, 2003, among a sample of 2,515 adults, 18 and older. For more information, visit

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.