Does File-Sharing Help or Hurt? Depends on the Product

Stacks of manga

In our connected world, there has been a lot of debate over how file sharing has changed or damaged or helped creative industries. Heck, people can’t even agree over whether to call it sharing or copyright violation or piracy.

Because it’s such a fraught topic, actual facts are few. Some say any pirated copy is a lost sale (but it’s unlikely that every read would have been a purchase); others say that it works as marketing to draw attention to a lesser-known work (but whether true or not, that should be the owner’s choice, not the consumer’s). Studies are rare, which is why it’s so interesting to see when one’s actually done. TorrentFreak recently reported on one conducted in Japan by an economics professor looking at sales of over three thousand manga volumes. “The Effects of Internet Book Piracy: The Case of Japanese Comics” reveals that findings were mixed.

In summary, if a series is ongoing, than piracy decreases sales, but if a series has been completed, sales go up. In the former case, the shared copy means not having to buy; but in the latter case, file sharing means promotion that keeps the customer from forgetting about a series the publisher is no longer advertising.

The study didn’t compare the two competing factors to each other, meaning there’s no summary of whether the industry was positively or negatively affected overall. Companies would do well, though, to keep the different effects in mind in determining how and why to fight piracy. As Professor Tanaka says, “If the effect of piracy is heterogeneous, it is not the best solution to shut down the piracy sites but to delete harmful piracy files selectively if possible.”

TorrentFreak writes, “According to the anti-piracy group CODA, which represents Japanese comic publishers, piracy losses overseas are estimated to be double the size of overseas legal revenue.” However, in the case of manga, the situation is also complicated by licensing agreements — some series aren’t legally available in some countries, so fans download translations instead — and availability — leading outlets, at least in the US, have cut back on the volumes they stock, meaning sampling or browsing is more difficult for potential customers to do without spending money.

With this study, it could also be the case that it’s harder to find shared copies of older works, since most people are looking for current and new releases, so it may be easier just to buy the thing. It’s all how you look at it, which is why I don’t expect this to change anyone’s behavior or talking points.

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