On Monday Ars Technica reported a new study carried out by the BI Norwegian School of Management which found that those who download music illegally from P2P networks are more likely to spend money on legitimate downloads than those who do not.
Following the recent sentencing of the owners of Bit Torrent site Pirate Bay, the piece was promptly picked up as proof positive that file sharing stimulates more music sales than it strangulates, casting yet more doubts on the reasoning that saw Pirate Bay’s owners convicted.
Take that, idiot music industry, was the gleeful undertone to almost every report on the story.
It is, of course, a torch wood issue, inflaming passions on either side of the debate: the music industry who want the law adhered to in an effort to guard their livelihoods and the livelihoods of their artists, and those on the anti-DRM, open port, share-and-share-alike side, for whom the report provides justification for years of soap-boxing.
But in the rush to appropriate the evidence to a fashionable cause, journalistic rigour was forgotten.
Think about the report’s lede-friendly claim objectively for a moment. Surely the kind of people who actively share music across P2P are, by definition, highly engaged in music (and film and videogames), the kind of people who are more likely to buy music whether they pirate or not? Where is the evidence to say that the correlation between piracy and legitimate music buying is in any way causal?
Where indeed, because it’s certainly not to be found in the Ars Technica piece, or the Guardian report, or the Venture Beat piece or a column in the Phoenix New Times or indeed, any of the multitude of places that recycled the original Ars Technica posting.
In fact, not one reporter quoted directly from the study in their write-up, or bothered to call anyone of its authors for a quotation. The Norwegian paper Aftenposten, which first ran the story, did quote a member of staff from the school saying “The most surprising thing is that the proportion of paid download is so high,” but that’s a vacuous quotation that sounds very much like it was lifted from the school’s original PR release.
Indeed, there is not one example of pressing from any English language news outlet, the only other quotation to be found from an EMI boss, also printed in Afternposten, who makes the reasonable point that “[while] the consumption of music increases, revenue declines [something that] cannot be explained in any way other than that the illegal downloading [has overtaken] the legal sale of music.” Where does that fit into the study’s findings?
To clairfy, my issues with the reporting of the report are twofold:
1. A claim has been made by a Business School that filesharers buy more music than non-filesharers. This fact has then been reported without any reference to the methodology of the study and in such a way to suggest a causal link between piracy and increased music purchasing (i.e. if you become a pirate you will then start to buy more music) when, as far as I can tell, the study says no such thing.
2. The press has reported the story without talking to the source, referencing the source in any detail whatsoever or questioning the source. In such a contentious area, where the methodology behind any study’s findings should be rigorously checked (as with the videogame violence studies, where so many bodies have a vested interest), this is frustrating.
The result is the global news recycling of a half-truth, one whose spread and popularity was fuelled by fashion and timing, not truth or usefulness, clouding the clarity of voices in this important debate yet further with meaningless echoes.