Skip to main content

Royalty fees world map: © Copyright 2006 SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan). fees world map: © Copyright 2006 SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan). issue of piracy and access to knowledge is of increasing relevance to the ICT4D community. As new copyright laws attempt to keep pace with the shifting landscape of digital cultural production, legal restrictions on media use and distribution, such as digital rights management, are being championed by heavyweights in the global media industry. This has led to the web of restrictions on media consumption becoming denser, with repercussions for access to knowledge and dissemination of information technologies across the globe.

There is a strong North / South element to this issue, as reflected in the differential in ownership of intellectual property (click on this Worldmapper image). The vast concentration of intellectual property ownership in the hands of wealthy media conglomerates in the global North has shaped the parameters of the debate over unauthorised distribution of cultural products.

Copyright in India, Brazil, the United States and Russia

Everything about this debate, from the language used to describe the phenomenon to the means used to combat it, is shaped by those who feel they have the most to lose – intellectual property owners and their governments in the global North. From their perspective, there can be no benefit to ‘piracy’, hence the dominance of the morally loaded term, which bizarrely associates unauthorised distribution of media with theft on the high seas.

As Lawrence Liang of the Alternative Law Forum puts it, we need to “shift the focus from what piracy is to what it does.” How does the widespread availability of affordable pirated cultural goods affect access to knowledge and local cultural production in the global South? Are there benefits to piracy? Can one consider it an economic sector that provides growth, employment, and innovation like any other, or is it an economic liability, as the anti-piracy industry would have us believe?

In order to examine this complex issue in greater depth, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) is collaborating with project partners in India, Brazil, the United States and Russia to produce a multi-country study on media piracy and access to knowledge in developing countries.

An alternative to biased statistics

The starting point for this research is data produced by the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA), a lobbying group composed of U.S. copyright industry associations that purport to provide comprehensive data on copyright infringement across the globe. The IIPA has close ties to the US Trade Representative (USTR), which relies upon data produced by the IIPA to draft its annual Special 301 watch list, singling out countries it perceives to be gross violators of intellectual property laws. By framing developing nations as violators of the intellectual property regime, the Special 301 report can be used as a means of extracting concessions from developing countries over the course of trade negotiations.

The project partners hope to re-shape the discourse surrounding piracy by providing a thoroughly researched, credible alternative to the data produced by the IIPA and relied upon by the USTR.

The research will focus on four major components: analysis of data production and use by anti-piracy groups such as the IIPA and their international partners; analysis of piracy as both an economic sector and a cultural infrastructure capable of supporting other industries; the organisation history and influence of the anti-piracy industry; and an ethnographic examination of how piracy works, from street hawkers to DVD burner labs to peer-to-peer digital distribution.

As the two-year project moves forward, APC hopes to incorporate perspectives from movements that provide an alternative to rigid copyright frameworks, such as Creative Commons and the I-Commons community.

How can alternative licensing mechanisms be successfully applied in developing country contexts in lieu of importing restrictive and often inapplicable copyright models from developed nations?

Eventually, the project partners hope to produce a research model that can be adapted for use in a variety of countries and regions, in order to further widen the discourse over this complex set of issues.

Image: Royalty fees World map © Copyright 2006 SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan).
For comparison, see “Open population Map (same source)”:

Also available in