The internet – as a virtually infinite space for sharing personal opinions and visions, corporate products and copyrighted works of all kinds – carries a high risk of illegal activities. This is partly due to the certain anonymity of the environment, and partly due to the highly developed technologies to which virtually everyone has access. Illegal activities in the digital environment include, but are not limited to, copyright infringement. According to the EUIPO study on online copyright infringement in the European Union, socio-economic factors also have a significant impact on the illegal use of copyright content.

Drivers of pirated content consumption

This year's study Online Copyright Infringement in the European Union conducted by the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) examined data on online piracy at the national level from 27 Member States. The aim of the research was to uncover the factors that cause differences between countries. The study is based on a large dataset on accesses to sites providing copyright-infringing content for the period 2017-2022.

The results of the study show that various factors have a significant impact on digital piracy:

  • Socio-economic variables: income level, education, inequality, unemployment
  • Demographic variables: population structure, proportion of young people in the population
  • Market-related characteristics: overall market size, extent of internet infrastructure, number of legal offers for different types of content, perception of intellectual property rights and societal attitudes towards infringement

Socio-economic factors

In terms of socio-economic factors, the biggest influence on the consumption of pirated content seems to be the level of per capita income and the level of inequality. That is, high per capita income and low levels of income inequality are associated with lower levels of illegal consumption.

It is often assumed that individual consumption of pirated content is related to household income, as households with higher income can afford to pay for legal content. In addition, this could be supported by the fact that richer countries tend to have more efficient IP protection systems and that consumers in these countries have more resources available to consume all goods, including legal digital content.

Income inequality can have a negative impact on the consumption of pirated content as music, films and TV programmes consumed by higher income earners are also of interest to lower income earners for whom knowledge of this content is a factor of social interaction. Thus, low-income individuals who are not in a position to pay for legal content may seek illegal ways to access digital products that they cannot afford or are unwilling to pay for. Moreover, in societies where there is strong pressure to own expensive digital products, there may be a greater temptation to use pirated content as a way to present oneself in the best light in one’s social bubble.

Another manifestation of economic inequality is the youth unemployment rate. It is therefore one of the factors that can have an impact on the level of digital piracy.

Demographic factors

According to the 2023 EUIPO Intellectual Property Perception Study, 33% of respondents aged 15-24 admitted having access to pirated content. This is much higher than for older age groups and more than double the total EU average of 14%. These results suggest that younger consumers are more likely to deliberately access pirated content. This suggests that countries with a higher proportion of younger people may also have a higher per capita consumption of illegal content.

Attitude to piracy

Culture and social norms in different societies can influence the way digital piracy is perceived. In some societies, piracy may be considered normal, while in others it may be unacceptable. According to an EUIPO study on IP perceptions, consumers in some countries have a more tolerant attitude towards IP infringement than in others, regardless of income level or other socio-economic variables. The study showed that there are significant differences in attitudes towards piracy between Member States. Consequently, countries with more benevolent attitudes towards illegal consumption of copyright content have a higher per capita consumption of pirated content.

Market size

Earlier studies of software piracy (Gopal & Sanders, 1998) and music piracy (Ki et al., 2006) found a negative relationship between market size and piracy rates. The exact nature of the mechanism is not clear. The 2006 study reported that in countries with large music markets, people tend to recognise music as a social value, leading to greater copyright compliance. Based on these findings, it can therefore be concluded that the larger the market, the lower the per capita consumption of pirated content.

Legal offer of copyrighted content

It is generally considered that the availability of legal content offers has the effect of reducing piracy. In the EUIPO study on perceptions of intellectual property, 26% of respondents indicated that they considered it acceptable to resort to online pirated content when no legal alternative was available. This suggests that the wider the legal supply of content, the lower the per capita consumption of pirated content.

Measures need to be implemented at all levels

It is therefore clear that digital piracy is a complex problem that is influenced by a combination of social and economic factors. Sub-social factors may also play a role:

  • Low perceived risk: some people may perceive digital piracy as harmless because they do not consider it likely that they will be caught and punished. If they perceive low risk, they may be willing to take the risk and download illegal content.
  • Collective behaviour: sometimes digital piracy can be considered normal or common behaviour in society. If people around an individual practice piracy, the individual may feel less guilty and be inclined to engage in the same behaviour.
  • Social interaction: social media and online community platforms can also play a role in the spread of pirated content.
  • Lack of knowledge about copyright: Low awareness of copyright and the legal implications of digital piracy can lead to people not being sufficiently informed that their activities are illegal.

Successfully reducing piracy requires action at all levels, including improving the availability of legal content, pricing policy, consumer awareness of copyright and the legal framework for combating piracy.

In this respect, it is necessary to keep pace with technological progress. The rapid development of technology makes it easier for pirates to carry out their illegal online activities by making it easier to share and distribute illegal content. It is therefore necessary not to fall behind and to make the most of cutting-edge technology to better protect copyright - both by protecting digital content against illegal copying and distribution and by monitoring possible pirate activities.

No doubt the legal framework and related enforcement and effective (preferably widely publicised) penalties for digital piracy are also crucial in the fight against piracy and can deter pirates from illegal practices.