Despite years of debates over the morality, prevalence and impact of mass online copyright infringement, actual hard numbers, backed by statistically rigorous methods, are almost impossible to find. Most of what passes as “knowledge” about piracy is based far more on pre-conceived notions and anecdotal evidence. And that really should not surprise, since the fundamental questions about file-sharing generally have less to do with what has happened and more to do with what might have happened. That is, what purchases did not occur because of the existence of free alternatives, what sales did not take place if the pirate networks had not made sharing so easy. Speculative counter-factuals are really all we are left with, and such questions can never be answered with any sort of definitive confidence.
Nonetheless, researchers continue to put forth new studies of the file-sharing phenomenon and its possible effects, at least in limited test cases. The latest study to emerge comes from Japan and looks at one particular niche, Japanese TV animation programs. By examining how the uploading of the shows to YouTube and the popular Japanese sharing network Winny affected both sales and rentals, the researchers from The Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI) in Tokyo came to some tentative conclusions,
Estimated equations of 105 anime episodes show that (1) Youtube viewing does not negatively affect DVD rentals, and it appears to help raise DVD sales; and (2) although Winny file sharing negatively affects DVD rentals, it does not affect DVD sales. … YouTube can be interpreted as a promotion tool for DVD sales.
A clear statement in favor of broadening distribution channels and moving away from prosecuting file-sharers? Maybe, but as with any study of piracy, the questions raised end up overwhelming any attempt at generalization. Aside from the difficulty in linking statistical correlation with causation, we have no way of knowing how specific the dynamic the researchers see in this instance can be observed elsewhere. Do anime fans act differently than general TV or movie fans? Do Japanese fans act the same way as American or European fans? Are only specific kinds of anime or could it be applied to animation in general? And more broadly speaking, how does this kind of unauthorized distribution affect other forms of media, from music to movies to comic books?
Ultimately, it seems to me, that no matter how rigorous and scientific any individual study about piracy may be, there will always exist far more questions and caveats than conclusions reached. Because so much is not, and cannot, be known about what might have happened had there not been any infringement, making generalizations both for or against piracy are more faith-based than anything else. The morality and ethics of file-sharing will continue to spark intense debates, but claims about its concrete indisputable effects should probably be taken with a rather large grain of salt.