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Does Piracy Undermine Product Creation?

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(Below is a guest post by my colleague, Rahul Telang from Carnegie Mellon University)

That Piracy undermines demand for products in copyright industries is intuitive and well supported by data. Music, movies, books, software have seen demand degradation due to various forms of piracy. What is not so well supported by data is whether piracy undermines product creation. For example, does piracy reduce the number of movies made, or quality of movies made, or investments in movies? Common sense suggests that this must be true. After all, this is the core principle of copyright. Large scale copyright infringement should affect revenues which in turn should affect producers’ incentives to create.

Despite this compelling argument the data does not support this claim readily. The reasons are many. For one, while the change in demand due to infringement happens more quickly, the production adjustments take time. So unless the infringement is persistent for a period of time, the contraction in production is not readily visible. The technology that leads to widespread infringement (say P2P networks and broadband infra-structure that facilitates online piracy) might also be accompanied by a period where cost of production and distribution declines or new markets open up. The net effect of these two opposing factors is all we can see in the data. And, the net effect could very well be that the production actually has increased!!!. This is not an evidence that piracy does not matter. Finally, there may be distributional bottlenecks (say number of theatres) that may prevent growth in production but might lead to larger investments in movies or in some cases higher input costs (actors and directors become more expensive).

In short, to see the effects of piracy in data, we need a setting where other factors are largely unchanged. With my co-author Joel Waldfogel, we explore Indian movie industry around the diffusion of Cable television and VCR. This phenomenon took place during 1985-2000. The paper is here. The story of our paper from the abstract is essentially that:

The diffusion of the VCR and cable television in India between 1985 and 2000 created substantial opportunities for unpaid movie consumption. We first document, from narrative sources, conditions conducive to piracy as these technologies diffused. We then provide strong circumstantial evidence of piracy in diminished appropriability: movies’ revenues fell by a third to a half, conditional on their ratings by movie-goers and their ranks in their annual revenue distributions. Weaker effective demand undermined creative incentives. While the number of new movies released had grown steadily from 1960 to 1985, it fell markedly between 1985 and 2000, suggesting a supply elasticity in the range of 0.2-0.7.

Even the quality as measured by IMDb ratings declined substantially. Thus, our study provides affirmative evidence on a central tenet of copyright policy, that stronger effective copyright protection effects more creation. For empirical research, sometimes you have to look at the historical context to see the evidence of the effect of a policy. Doing a similar study in post 2000 era for any other country might be tricky because the other competing factors have altered. There will be a need to be more creative in defining and measuring product creation in this new context. And, I am sure we will see such efforts in near future. Needless to say, a lot more research is needed to settle this issue.  However, our paper does provide an evidence that in an appropriate setting, effects of copyright infringement on product creation can be measured.