Licensing theater

Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society pointed me to a comprehensive study by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) (Wikipedia backgrounder) on the effects of media piracy in emerging markets:

Based on three years of work by some thirty-five researchers, Media Piracy in Emerging Economies tells two overarching stories: one tracing the explosive growth of piracy as digital technologies became cheap and ubiquitous around the world, and another following the growth of industry lobbies that have reshaped laws and law enforcement around copyright protection. The report argues that these efforts have largely failed, and that the problem of piracy is better conceived as a failure of affordable access to media in legal markets.

“The choice,” said Joe Karaganis, director of the project, “isn’t between high piracy and low piracy in most media markets. The choice, rather, is between high-piracy, high-price markets and high-piracy, low price markets. Our work shows that media businesses can survive in both environments, and that developing countries have a strong interest in promoting the latter. This problem has little to do with enforcement and a lot to do with fostering competition.”

I’m looking forward to perusing the report, but there’s a threshold issue that I want to address:  SSRC has released the report itself subject to a “Consumer’s Dilemma” license:

[T]he CD license creates different paths to acquiring the report: first, we have an IP address geolocator that sends visitors from high income countries toward an $8 paywall when they download the report;  all other resolvable IP addresses get free access.  Second, and separately available, a ‘commercial reader’ license that costs $2000.

Why did SSRC set things up this way?  Licensing theater:

Maybe some clarification is in order here. If you are residing in one of the listed high-income countries, want to read the report, but think that $8 is an unreasonable price, you can acquire it for free through other means.  In fact, we have made it exceedingly easy to do so. If you fall under the terms of the commercial reader license but think that $2000 is unreasonable, you have the same options (plus the $8 option).  In both cases, the reader is faced with a dilemma: pay the legal price (roughly mapping ability to pay to a determination about whether the price is fair), acquire it through pirate channels, or don’t bother with it.  In most of the countries we’ve studied in this report, the results of this calculation with respect to DVDs, music, and software are strikingly consistent.  Media goods are highly desired, exorbitantly priced with respect to local incomes, and freely available through pirate channels.   High rates of piracy and tiny legal markets are the result. We’ve written 400+ pages about this dysfunctional form of globalization and its causes.

The resulting consumer dilemma is a ubiquitous experience in medium and low-income countries but one that confronts the American or European reader (or the media company employee conjured up by the commercial reader license) much less frequently and with much less intensity.  The global market is made for those consumers.  It is priced and distributed for them.  They are rarely faced with what they experience as ridiculous pricing for a DVD or book–or seriously disadvantaged by differential pricing.  The Consumer’s Dilemma license is a way of reversing that equation and, in the most minor ways,  requiring an explicit engagement with it.  Among the surreal aspects, that simple choice can subject you to crushing civil and criminal penalties, but you can rest easy knowing that only very rare, arbitrary examples will be made (and none in our case).  Now that’s theater.  Our license has a theatrical side, to be sure, but it also stays true to the experiences  documented in the report.

Well done, SSRC.  Now I’m really curious to read the report…

Update: TechDirt has posted an initial analysis of the report here.

0 thoughts on “Licensing theater

  1. I bought an $8.00 download. I *think* the license entitles me to post a free copy for my copyright students, but I’m still mulling over whether I should (for pedagogical purposes) subject them to the Consumer’s Dilemma License instead. In favor is that I would expect it to provoke reflection; against is that I would expect most of them to skip the download in order to save the $8.


    • Let me know what you decide. However, I wouldn’t let the fact that most students would skip straight to a “pirated” copy deter you; I think that is precisely the point SSRC is trying to make. (On a related note, I notice, with more than a little amusement, that the “pirated” posting of the report up on Scribd was done by user “urprobablyapirate”. Given that the SSRC’s report is the only document ever posted by this user, I have my suspicions as to who this user works for.)


    • And for what it’s worth, someone claiming to be Joe Karaganis (the editor of the SSRC report) has posted this rather interesting tidbit over on TechDirt:

      a few comments: (1) If the $8 seems unreasonable, look for it elsewhere. We have gone to considerable lengths to make it easily available for free and have no enforcement mechanism (or intentions). You may violate the license in doing so, but the world is full of people violating dumb licenses to get something they want. Which is our point. (2) Policymakers fall into the non-commercial category, as do educational purposes of any kind, personal reading outside medium/large content shops, and the whole raft of usual exceptions and limitations. Think up a valid fair use case for yourself and indulge it. Send it to whomever you like. Or send the link to the $8 paywall and to the version on Scribd and make them decide. (3)The report is also about the wild divergence between the laws on the books and their actual application. US law is at the far end of this spectrum, with the NET Act in particular creating massive criminal liability for literally any receipt of unlicensed goods of value. Universal jeopardy, applied very arbitrarily and infrequently. That the context we’re signalling. Maybe we should have added torture and the sacrifice of firstborn to achieve the full Swiftian effect, but the actual law seemed wild enough. But you may be right that we have to recalibrate. I go into this at some length at . We are considering setting up a Facebook support group for those willing to help others get the report for free, so help is on the way. Regards, Joe


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