Big bogus ratio

Anti-piracy people are fond of citing the big ratio. They’re talking about the ratio of paid-for music downloads to non-paid-for (i.e. stolen) music downloads. They like the big ratio because it makes things look really bad for the content industry – it dramatises the narrative. Here it is again, in the FT, quoted by Salamander Davoudi and Tim Bradshaw:

For every track bought online, 20 were downloaded illegally last year, according to IFPI, the international music industry lobby group

But the big ratio is, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, utterly misleading.

When they say: “look. N times as many tracks were downloaded illegally as legally. It’s a tsunami, a cataclysm, an [insert apocalyptic noun here].” they’re making a category error. They’re comparing different categories of behaviour: different because each is conditioned by a different price.

There’s no meaningful comparison. Tracks downloaded for nothing are not the same as tracks downloaded at a price. Stuff that can be acquired for nothing is wholly different from stuff that has to be paid for.

Here the wheelbarrow principle applies: if you hear that Tesco’s are selling tins of beans for nothing you’re going to leave the string bag at home and show up with a wheelbarrow. If the works of James Brown are available for nothing you’re not going to download the Best of… You’re going to download all of it. Discrimination, in zero price-world, is redundant. And, of course, that’s not to say that discrimination doesn’t happen any more or even that downloaders don’t practice it. It does and they do. Just not at the point of sale.

And meanwhile, the record labels continue to lean on the big ratio, a bogus comparator that doesn’t help us understand the behaviour of music downloaders and can’t help us measure the crisis for the content industry.

2 thoughts on “Big bogus ratio

  1. I think Alan, the previous commenter, is a surrealist.

    Steve, you’re absolutely right. Lazy writers are always making the assumption that changing the context doesn’t change the thing being observed.

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