The UK Publishers Association has come out strongly in support of the City of London Police’s creation of the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU), launched in the UK to tackle criminal IP abuse. “The launch of Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit is a hugely significant development in the fight against online intellectual property crime which undermines the creative industries on a daily basis,” said Richard Mollet, CEO of The Publishers Association. “We applaud the Intellectual Property Office in providing funding for this new Unit. We now look forward to working collaboratively with PIPCU and other rightsholders in upholding the rights of publishers and authors.”
But is this even the right target? My impression from the news so far about the creation and first actions of PIPCU is that it is going to target IP infringements for personal gain, DVD, CD, and software piracy being the most obvious candidates. And if it gets around to illegal online file sharing for personal use, I suspect that movies, software, and games are going to be far higher on its list of priorities than illegally downloaded ebooks. From the overall creative industries’ point of view, never mind the police, does it make sense to go after pirated ebooks, or other types of IP with unit costs as much as 20 times theirs?
“Launching PIPCU we are making a statement of intent and sending out a clear warning to organised crime that the UK has just become a more hostile place for those who seek to make criminal capital on the back of others’ honest endeavours,” said City of London Police Commissioner Adrian Leppard. But note the emphasis on “criminal capital” and “organised crime.” Yes, there may even be UK websites backed by organized crime that host ebook collections for illegal download. But how on earth are they going to make any money from them? And why would readers prefer their wares to the same books for free, pirated by disorganized individuals via torrents and file sharing networks, with zero interest in making gains off their trades?
According to the City of London Police’s press materials on PIPCU, its first action, which “followed an early referral from the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT),” was a raid on a DVD counterfeiting operation in Birmingham. “Detectives seized DVDs with an estimated sale value of £40,000, with titles including Game of Thrones, CSI and Vampire Diaries.” That strikes me as a proper indication of the priorities, and legitimate goals, of PIPCU. The PA may feel obliged to endorse any IP protection initiative that comes by, but I doubt that it will get much in return in terms of fixing its problem.
And is there even much of a problem? The Ofcom/Kantar Media Online Copyright Infringement Tracker for March-May 2013, which I referenced earlier, cites only 8 percent of its poll downloading ebooks illegally, which, according to the report, means that ebooks “had the lowest estimated illegal behaviour across the content types.” Now, I’m aware that there are some question marks, raised by Nate Hoffelder and others, about the Tracker’s figures. And I do suspect that this 8 percent is a considerable underestimate. All the same, this is data from another UK regulator. I also reckon that illegal ebook use in the UK or anywhere else is not happening in any way that the likes of PIPCU could usefully tackle.
Yes, I do believe that living authors are entitled to the fruits of their endeavors – though I’m a lot less concerned about publishers that historically have put their rights and entitlements far in advance of those of authors and readers. But for either or both, it makes best sense to deal with the problem in ways that actually work, instead of banner-waving for totally irrelevant grandstanding exercises.