Downloading Lies

Anti-piracy propaganda


In 2005 the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) released a study of movie piracy that estimated how much money was being lost to copyright infringement. "The typical pirate is age 16–24 and male," the MPAA reported, adding that "44 percent of MPAA company losses in the U.S. are attributable to college students."

MPAA members used that impressive statistic to lobby Congress and universities for tighter controls on college Ethernet networks. College students became the bogeymen in the download wars, blamed for the movie business's troubles.

But it turns out the number was wildly off. In January 2008 the MPAA admitted that the share of movie pirating losses attributable to college students was more like 15 percent, about one-third the figure offered in the 2005 report.

People familiar with the study say researchers assumed every film that was illegally downloaded otherwise would have been purchased—not rented, but bought at full price. Spokespeople for LEK, the consulting group that did the research, refused to comment on the size of what they called a "human error" or on how the new calculation was made. LEK has not corrected any other part of the 18-month, 20,600-subject study and has not made the full data cache public.

The MPAA has apologized for the flawed report, but during the two and a half years that the incorrect information was touted, it was cited in at least two congressional hearings on intellectual property. Those hearings produced the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007, which requires colleges and universities to adopt strict antipiracy policies. Neither Congress nor the MPAA seems interested in revisiting that law.