A lot of poorly substantiated figures are being thrown around regarding what online music piracy costs the industry. Illegal digital downloads of copyrighted material like music, movies and games has been one of the hottest political topics of the last year, with everyone from Peter Mandelson to Lily Allen weighing in on the subject, but no-one can come up with a definitive figure on how much of the market value the music industry has lost over the last ten years is attributable to pirates stealing music rather than buying it from music download stores like iTunes and Emusic. The BPI’s contention that “Jupiter estimate that losses to online music piracy amounted to £180m in 2008, and predict they will rise to £200m in 2009” is seemingly based on the idea that one illegal download equals one lost sale, but that’s not really true; bacause someone is prepared to pinch something to listen to it, doesn’t mean they are necessarily prepared to pay full price for a copy. This is certainly the opinion of BT consumer boss John Petton, who called the BPI’s claims “melodramatic”, and estimated that the cost of enforcing the measures that the UK government proposes to deal with online piracy will cost around £365m ($583.4m) a year [!].

Scoffing ensued from rights agencies after this announcement from BT, but now government ministers have revealed that the costs will be more like £500 million annually. According to the Times – “Impact assessments published alongside the Bill predict that the measures will generate £1.7 billion in extra sales for the film and music industries over the next ten years, as well as £350 million for the Government in extra VAT.” These figures are presumably based on the assumption that everything that is stolen would otherwise be bought, which is pretty optimistic… What is certain if the current bill is enacted, is that the majority of law-abiding consumers will end up paying a vast amount to police the actions of the few – if the wild estimates we report are true, more money than is lost by the music industry to pirates annually by a factor of two. Hardly an equitable proposition.

What should be remembered is that this explosion of piracy has been driven by consumer demand, and the convenience offered by online piracy. Rather than focusing on punishing the minority responsible for the piracy, it would seem more appropriate for the music industry and rights bodies to direct their efforts towards making the convenience and level of ‘service’ provided by file sharing legally and financially viable. If we are being expected to pay £25 extra a year each for our net connection, more than double what the music industry says it’s losing to pirates, then surely it would be better to provide extra services to the average consumer for that money, than to spend it on persecuting people who probably wouldn’t be pirating in the first place if what they were after was more readily available online.