Study: Internet Piracy Is ‘Tenacious and Persistent’

Voluntary efforts have yet to reverse the trend

Despite the best efforts of Internet service providers, advertisers and ad networks to stop copyright infringement on the Internet, piracy is still a runaway train.

In January 2013, 432 million unique users infringed on copyright material, up 10 percent from 2011, per a NetNames study commissioned by NBCUniversal. Most of the infringing users—327 million—came from North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. Between 2010 and 2012, the amount of bandwidth used for infringing content skyrocketed 160 percent to 9,567 petabytes, nearly one-fourth of the total bandwidth used by all Internet users.

"The practice of infringement is tenacious and persistent," said Dr. David Price, director of piracy analysis for NetNames and the author of the study, which was released Tuesday.

The 100-page study is one of two timed as a backdrop to a House judiciary subcommittee hearing set for Wednesday titled, "The role of voluntary agreements in the U.S. intellectual property system." On Wednesday morning, the Motion Picture Association of America plans to unveil another study that takes on search engines' role in introducing audiences to infringing TV shows and movies online.

Both studies are aimed at a Congress that came to the brink of passing anti-piracy legislation two years ago, only to be shut down by a powerful Internet lobby and community. Since then, the administration has been pushing a broad spectrum of Internet-related industries to adopt best practices for protecting U.S. intellectual property. 

Advertisers and networks, for example, have had some success in making sure ads don't appear on pirate sites. Payment processors like American Express, Visa and Mastercard have also developed a set of best practices to stop processing transactions for sites that distribute counterfeit and pirated goods.

"Occasionally you'll see a major brand slip through, but it's rare to see the big brands," said Price during a press call. "It's had some effect, but it's still the early days."

Earlier this year, Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and other major ISPs voluntarily agreed to reduce online piracy through a copyright alert system that notifies subscribers in a series of six warnings when they are downloading or streaming illegal content.

Federal enforcers have also made a dent. Since the U.S. government took down Megaupload, one of the world's largest cyber lockers, there has been a marked and sustained decline in the number of users to such sites.

Search engines—called out by the administration as a business that could do more, and the topic of the MPAA's study—are still leading users to pirated content, Price said.

"We've been studying the Google 'marketer' model over the past year but have seen very little significant effect from it. If you look at the number of infringing sites that come up in search results, there has been no change," Price said.

Lawmakers, however, have yet to propose any new legislation and congressional staffers say nothing is imminent. Still, they are paying close attention to a piracy problem that is big and growing.

"The problem of online piracy is real, and it's weakening our economy," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (D-Utah), co-chair of the international anti-piracy caucus. "We've seen the private sector play a greater role in combating online piracy, which is important because as today's report underscores, piracy online is growing at a rapid pace. … Our efforts must be equally tenacious and persistent. … I look forward to continuing to work on a robust private-public partnership to combat online piracy.”