Music piracy is the copying and distributing of a piece of music without the owner’s consent. It is a form of copyright infringement that has cost the music industry billions of dollars.
After all, if someone is getting your music for free, or at a discounted rate, why should they buy it from a retailer at full price? And if people aren’t buying the music, record companies and artists lose money.
Over time, steps have been taken to keep music piracy minimal, but it continues on to this day. This article will talk about music piracy and how you can stay protected.
History of Piracy
Piracy got its name from pirate radio. Pirate radio refers to radio stations that broadcast without a valid license. The lack of license means they are not required to pay artists and labels for playing their music.
The Copyright Law for Music Act went into effect in 1906 and was passed by the British Parliament. It was created to stop the gang piracy of sheet music that was prevalent in the early 20th century. Gangs would buy the music, copy it and resell it for half the price.
As a result, writers ended up dying in poverty.
The Copyright Law that went into effect was successful in reducing piracy. However, piracy continued to exist.
In the age of vinyl and tapes, we didn’t have to worry too much about piracy. While recordings could be exchanged or sold, the lack of quality did not make these transactions easy.
Then came digital.
Digital formats made it easy for people to copy music with high quality sound and it enabled the process of them uploading these pieces to the internet where they could be sold it to a much larger audience.
When it came to digital piracy, Napster was perhaps the biggest culprit.
Napster allowed users to exchange music over a common free server without any regard for copyright laws. Fortunately, the site was quickly shut down after being sued by Metallica and Dr. Dre. In both cases, the platform was found to violate the Digital Millennium Copyright act.
Other platforms that were similar to Napster, such as Limewire, were shut down for similar reasons. However, there are music trading sites that still exist due to loopholes.
Pirate Bay, for instance, still exists because it does not host any of the illegal files. Rather, it provides users with a map where they can access the files. And because Pirate Bay is hosted in Sweden, it exists under a law where such a map is not considered illegal.
Pirate Bay is considered a torrent site and there are many more of its kind out there.
Piracy has become a major issue for musicians and several industry associations have answered the call.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for instance, has lobbied for stricter punishments for those breaking copyright laws.
Record companies have also turned to technological barriers that would prevent copying. DRM (Digital Rights Management) is one tool that is used to physically control the access of copyrighted materials. However, this has been met with some criticism as some music fans claim it interferes with legitimate user’s ability to use the music as they would like.
However, record labels insist that some type of technological system should be put in place to block piracy.
Others argue that the laws that limit music piracy simply aren’t strict enough. They feel like they are too broad to deal with today’s rapidly growing technological developments. They feel they must be updated to effectively impede illegal digital communications.
The RIAA is in charge of carrying out most lawsuits against music piracy with some resulting in violators having to pay out as much as $150,000 per infringement. However, many say this amount is excessive and should be considered cruel and unusual punishment.
Others have gone so far as accusing the RIAA of bullying specifically in one case where they told a defendant they would not settle until they took every penny he had.
Another attempt to stop piracy came in the form of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which was proposed almost a decade ago. It set out to stop piracy by expanding criminal laws regarding copyright violations. The act was also met with opposition for various reasons.
One critic pointed out that the way SOPA was set up in such a way that would allow web sites to easily respawn under a different name just hours after they were taken down.
Others felt it was a form of censorship. In fact, on American Censorship Day, social media platforms such as Facebook, Tumbler, Twitter and Reddit blacked out their pages redirecting users to SOPA protest messages.
Due to opposition that kept the act from moving forward, SOPA was eventually put on the table.
The economic ramifications of pirating music is difficult to determine. After all, not every pirated copy of music results in a lost sale. There are people who may still want an original copy of the music after pirating it while others may have never bought the music for full price anyway.
In any case, 2002 saw CD sales fall by 8.9% with revenues falling 6.7%. This was a sign of an ongoing trend and the RIAA blamed internet piracy for the drop. But in reality, the drop could be accounted to any number of causes.
SoundScan, for example, blames the drop on a lack of CD’s being released.
However, the RIAA estimates that 803 million CDs were sold while 2.1 billion were downloaded for free. Looking at these numbers, 2.6 times the number of CDs sold were downloaded for free, yet sales revenue fell by only 6.7% so clearly, the numbers aren’t adding up.
It should further be pointed out that these numbers refer to music downloaded for free, not necessarily music that has been pirated.
A more general overview comes from Woolley’s introduction which estimates that 12.5 billion dollars are lost due to file sharing and music piracy with $5 billion of the profits lost by the music industry directly. This has had reverberating effects as music companies have had to cut down staffs and made other concessions to make up for this loss.
We can look at more recent data in a 2019 article released by Music Business Worldwide by Andy Chatterley, the CEO of UK based Muso, which monitors piracy worldwide.
According to Chatterley’s data, torrent sites account for 6.7% of piracy while unlicensed streaming accounts for 33.6% and stream ripping sites account for 33.1%.
And while you would expect newer albums to be pirated often, it also happens to older releases.
For instance, in July of 2019, Ed Sheeran’s album Divide which was over two years old at the time got 612K illegal downloads, Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, which released in 2016 got 80K illegal downloads and Lady GaGa’s The Life of Monster which came out back in 2009 got 202K illegal downloads.
This accounts for a $10 million loss of revenue.
Going even further back, Pink Floyd’s 1973 release, Dark Side of the Moon was illegally downloaded 131K times in the same month while the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was downloaded 182K times.
Music Piracy Stats
There is no doubt that technological developments like file sharing, MP3 players and CDRs have increased music piracy. The most common forms of piracy are internet piracy and compact disc piracy.
Piracy has also been linked to organized crime as a profit driven illegal activity.
Advanced technology has made it easy and inexpensive to copy music making it much more affordable to distribute music, whether it’s through a record company or a pirater.
When looking at how files were transferred, traditional web servers and FTP servers were not as popular as peer to peer (P2P) methods, perhaps because P2P is faster.
In fact, the swiftness P2P offers, many British consumers are asking for a legal P2P service.
Are Streaming Services the Answer?
Many believe that streaming services could be the answer to ending piracy. After all, if people buy a subscription for a platform such as Spotify, they have unlimited access to all the music they would want. So why should they pirate music?
The truth is that streaming services have helped. However, piracy is still very much a problem for today’s music industry professional.
One should also bear in mind that of the 3.5 billion people connected to the internet globally, only 10% subscribe to a music streaming service making for a very low ratio.
Piracy Rises During the Pandemic
Since the pandemic occurred in 2020, piracy has experienced a bit of a revival. Although numbers fluctuated throughout the course of the lockdowns and quarantines, there was an overall uptick.
Though it’s unclear as to exactly what caused this rise, it may be due to an increased desire for ownership. With people depressed and staying at home, they want something that is theirs, something they can hold on to, even if it’s in digital form. Therefore, they were choosing to buy actual products, or pirate them rather than subscribe to them for limited availability.
A second reason may simply be subscription fatigue. With all the platforms requiring subscriptions, including movie and TV streaming services, delivery services and more, which were especially popular during the pandemic, people may have just been burnt out and/or they may have been looking to avoid adding yet another monthly fee to their expenses.
A final factor to look at is the royalties. Spotify, in particular has been targeted for paying artists royalties that are far beneath what they deserve. Users may have decided not to support these sites at all and have turned to pirating music instead.
Yes, the logic here is thin. After all, if you abandon a streaming service because it pays low royalties to artists, why support a habit that denies artists of royalties completely? But it’s possible that people feel they would rather get a free product than one that isn’t doing anyone much good.
What Can Be Done to Control Piracy?
The control of piracy is very much in the hands of legislation. And if we look back at history, many attempts to control piracy have been unsuccessful.
However, there are some steps that both lawmakers and music professionals can take moving forward. Here are some suggestions.
Stronger IP Rights and Legislation
The music industry needs to work closely with law enforcement to trace online pirating services while enforcing stronger litigations against perpetrators who violate piracy laws.
Technology to Trace Illegal Distribution
It takes two to tango. In the case of music piracy, both a provider of illegal content and a provider of file sharing technologies are necessary. The industry can trace these parties by developing watermarking methods that can trace the source of distribution.
They can also work with online stores to remove apps that are conducive to piracy and as well as restricting access to illegal web sites. ISP’s may be asked to keep tabs on the downloading activity that occurs on their bandwidths.
Scan the Web for Pirated Content
Sometimes piracy can happen through accidental means. In some instances, music may be distributed by individuals who have no intention of pirating.
Platforms like SoundCloud that enables users to share and promote music just beg for the unknowing distribution of copyrighted protected content and it is up to labels to control this. In addition, cleansing operations can be put into effect to keep this from happening taking some of the weight off record labels’ shoulders.
Raising Public Awareness
Many people pirate without realizing its ramifications. Raising awareness will open their eyes as to how harmful it can truly be. Messages can be sent out via PSAs and in school programs that educate youth on the dangers of piracy as the younger generations seem to be among the most susceptible and unaware.
Changing the Business Model
We already touched on how streaming services have reduced piracy because a person that has a subscription to a service that provides seemingly unlimited access to music would not need to pirate. But it’s also worth it to mention that when you stream songs, you get them at a very affordable price. If you look like sites like iTunes and Amazon, and break down the cost of each song, you will find that many of them cost less than a dollar while others cost less than a cent!
Now we also discussed how many artists don’t get much revenue off streaming services. However, it may be worth it to get their music listened to. It may even be worth it to give it away free.
If we look at the income many artists are making, it is largely generated through touring, not album sales. If artists say goodbye to that income, they may make even more on touring.
In past years, both Radiohead and U2 have given their music away for free or through a ‘pay what you like’ model on streaming services. The end result were albums that were huger than ever. This made for a big boost in their career that may have more than made up for a loss in album sales revenue.
Obviously, there will some musicians who are reluctant to go this route, but it could be mutually beneficial. It could get musicians a bigger fan base while weaning fans away from pirating making it a thing of the past.
Offer Exclusive Content
Artists and labels can also control piracy by offering exclusive content to fans that buy their products. For instance, you can tell fans that if they buy your recordings from you (or your label directly) they will get a free poster in the album or other free merch or content. This will make them more likely to buy your product as opposed to pirating it.
Be Careful About Leaking Music
Leaking music is a great way to get people excited about your album, but it can take a bite out of music sales and encourage piracy. After all, once music is leaked on the internet, there’s no taking it back. Weigh the pros and cons before you decide to do a pre-release.
Protect Your Music After Recording It
It is sad to think that the people you work with may have a hand in pirating your music, but it happens. To ensure you’re safe, bring your own secure hard drive to recordings and take it with you when you leave.
Piracy considerably eats into the profits of musicians and music businesses. While many think streaming ‘killed’ piracy, it is very much a prevalent issue.
The tips in this article provide insight into what piracy is and presents a few possible solutions. It is hopeful that steps will be taken to completely wipe it out at some point in the not too distant future.