Modified August 28, 2015

Piracy and IP Enforcement

In the context of technology, “piracy” is a colloquial term for the illegal copying of copyrighted works. At one time “piracy” referred mostly to the copying of work for resale. Now non-commercial copying is sometimes considered piracy as well, especially if it affects the market for a product. The related problem of counterfeiting is the illegal reproduction of patented or trademarked products. Sectors affected by piracy include music, software, movies, photography, books, and video games. Counterfeiting involves a wide array of goods, including consumer products, designer fashions, and medicines.

With the invention of the camera, the photocopy machine, sound and video recorders, and the personal computer – and more recently, the evolution of the Internet and peer-to-peer networks (P2P) – it has become increasingly easy to make and distribute illegal copies. Traditionally, piracy was deterred by the threat of criminal prosecutions and by civil lawsuits brought by copyright owners. These methods are less effective against copying on a massive scale, or against pirates operating in other countries. The use of technological protection measures (including digital rights management, or DRM) to make copying harder has become more important. 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was a significant step toward addressing piracy issues related to these new technologies.


These issues arise in discussions of piracy and counterfeiting:
  • The cost to the economy of piracy and counterfeiting, including lost sales revenue and jobs. Increasingly, this cost is being seen in terms of unfair competition that companies that pirate have over those that abide by the law.

  • The danger to consumers from counterfeited goods like fake medicines.

  • Whether some illegal copying is good for creators, because it serves as a kind of advertising.

  • Whether stronger penalties will deter piracy.

  • Whether more resources should go to the FBI and other public-sector authorities to fight piracy.

  • Whether providers of services and software that are useful to pirates (especially P2P software) should be liable for piracy; in particular, if some online service providers ought to be held responsible if they fail to filter out illegal works.

  • Whether sanctions should be brought against countries where piracy is rampant, such as China.

  • The need for copyright law to be “balanced” in protecting consumers and producers.

  • The fairness of lawsuits against ordinary consumers who make illegal copies for their own use.

  • The fairness of “notice and take-down” statutes that give copyright and trademark owners the right to ask web sites to remove works they believe are illegal copies.

  • The effectiveness of technological copy-protection measures.

  • Whether it unfairly harms innovation that the DMCA bans the circumvention of copy-protection measures, regardless of actual piracy.

  • How technological protection measures affect consumers, fair use, privacy, and prices.

TAP Academics researching piracy and enforcement include:
Jay Pil Choi of Michigan State University has written about intellectual property and software piracy worldwide.

Edward Felten of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University writes about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and security issues. He is currently serving as the Chief Technology Officer with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Doug Lichtman of the UCLA School of Law writes about online service providers’ liability for copyright infringement.

Stan Liebowitz of the University of Texas at Dallas has authored several studies on the economic impact of piracy on producers of creative works.

Robert Merges of the UC Berkeley School of Law has written widely about how the market for creative works operates, fair use, and other licensing and enforcement issues.

Pamela Samuelson of the UC Berkeley School of Law writes about history of copyright law and fair use, and the fairness of penalties for infringement.

Suzanne Scotchmer of UC Berkeley studies the economics of digital rights management.

Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School writes about Internet enforcement issues, filtering, and creativity.

These sources are a good place to start in understanding piracy and enforcement issues: In “In Defense of Piracy,” Larry Lessig argues that copyright enforcement should not hinder free speech. In “Economists’ Topsy-Turvy View of Piracy,” Stan Liebowitz critiques the argument that piracy helps creators sell more works. In “The Magnificence of the Disaster: Reconstructing the Sony BMG Rootkit Incident,” Deirdre Mulligan and Aaron Perzanowski assess problems with technology intended to hinder piracy. In “Impacts of Entry by Counterfeiters,” Yi Qian looks at how producers respond to the problem of counterfeiting.  In “Digital Rights Management and the Pricing of Digital Products,” Suzanne Scotchmer and Yooki Park study the effect of DRM on prices. In “A Model of Piracy” Jay Pil Choi and Sang-Hoo Bae explore how software piracy affects software development and users. 

Media Contact

For media inquiries on a range of TAP topics, or for assistance facilitating interviews between reporters and academics, contact TAP@techpolicy.com.

PDF Download