Illegal downloads cost UK £120bn a year, says Government

It's not just MPs that enjoy freebies: apparently 7m of us have no problem with illegal downloads.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Illegal downloading is hitting new heights in the UK, according to a new report from a Government quango: apparently more than 7m of us use illegal downloading sites, costing the British economy over £100bn every year. And given faster broadband speeds and the proliferation of file-sharing sites, the problem is only going to get worse – particularly because most people don’t even see it as a crime. Since this is robbing the Government of some serious tax revenue, and handily reminds us that it’s not just MPs who like to play the system, we can see why they're so keen to address the issue...

The report, commissioned by the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property (the kind of quango that may not survive the forthcoming public spending cull) seems to have based its sums on a study of one peer-to-peer file sharing site. Apparently one weekday at about midday, there were about 1.3m people using the site – so if they all downloaded one file per day, that would mean nearly 5bn items consumed for free in a year, on this site alone. And since there are dozens of these sites on the internet, SABIP estimates that there’s about £120bn of content being downloaded every year (which admittedly assumes that people would be willing to pay for the privilege of downloading some of the rubbish they’re happy to take for free).

It’s not just that there isn't an alternative. Take recorded music, for instance: the likes of iTunes allow users to download music legally, but according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (a trade body), in 2007 illegal music downloads still outnumbered legal ones by six to one. And although this might feel like a victimless crime, it isn’t: the creative industries that miss out on this revenue end up having to cut jobs as a result. ‘[It] seriously damages business and innovation throughout the UK,’ insists IP minister David Lammy.

The Government’s problem is that this kind of downloading is considered perfectly acceptable by many in the UK, despite being illegal – it’s ‘part and parcel of the social fabric of our society,’ as SABIP puts it. People are used to stuff being free online, and now faster broadband is making it even easier to download big files, one of the big practical constraints is disappearing.

But the internet service providers are refusing to help. And attempting to criminalise several million people doesn’t sound like a great idea, particularly for an unpopular Government in the run-up to a General Election. So while this report may have a valid point, we’re not entirely sure what Lammy and co are going to do about it.

In today's bulletin:

Nationwide reports signs of life in the housing market
Illegal downloads cost UK £120bn a year, says Government
Entrepreneur optimism: a thing of the past?
It's all the boss's fault, say stressed workers
Playing hardball, with YouTube

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