Part of the success of iTunes, in an era where Napster showed how to share content for free, was due to the fact that many users don’t want to “steal” copyrighted material–it’s often a question of access and affordability.
A new NBER study confirms the relative willingness of those who use copyrighted content to respect the rights holders’ IP rights:
Copyright infringement may result from frictions preventing legal consumption, but may also reveal demand. Motivated by this fact, we run a field experiment in which we contact firms that are caught infringing on expensive digital images. Emails to all firms include a link to the licensing page of the infringed image; for treated firms, we add links to a significantly cheaper licensing site. Making infringers aware of the cheaper option leads to a fourteen-fold increase in the ex-post licensing rate. Two additional experimental interventions are designed to reduce search costs for (i) price and (ii) product information. Both interventions-immediate price comparison and recommendation of images similar to those infringed-have large positive effects. Our results highlight the importance of mitigating user costs in small-value transactions. [Emphasis added].
First, while it is good that users who opted to use the less-expensive images were able to do so cheaply without infringing, the costs of the original images are high. In the e-mails sent to infringing users, the premium options “typically range from $545 to $1140 for a 3-month period” while the low-cost options were as low as $12 per image. Indeed, the vast majority of those who purchased licensed images used the low-cost option, as shelling out over $2,000 per year (on the low end!) for a licensed image may be prohibitively expensive for many users.
Second, and more concerning, is how easy it is to accidentally infringe on content. The study does not break down why users infringed, but the authors qualify their findings by arguing that many of the infringers may have done so unwittingly due to “frictions” associated with determining who holds the rights to a given image.