In the past day, many news agencies and blogs have been reporting on the MPAA's admission to flaws in its key downloading study. Here's the skinny:
In a 2005 study it commissioned, the Motion Picture Association of America claimed that 44 percent of the industry's domestic losses came from illegal downloading of movies by college students, who often have access to high-bandwidth networks on campus.
But now the MPAA, which represents the U.S. motion picture industry, has told education groups a "human error" in that survey caused it to get the number wrong. It now blames college students for about 15 percent of revenue loss.
The MPAA says that's still significant, and justifies a major effort by colleges and universities to crack down on illegal file-sharing. But Mark Luker, vice president of campus IT group Educause, says it doesn't account for the fact that more than 80 percent of college students live off campus and aren't necessarily using college networks. He says 3 percent is a more reasonable estimate for the percentage of revenue that might be at stake on campus networks.
MPAA said in a statement that no errors had been found in the study besides the percentage of revenue losses that could be attributed to college students, but that it would hire a third party to validate the numbers.
This is, of course, how the problem started. The MPAA hired its own private firm (here, LEK) to generate a "piracy study." Big surprise that some of the numbers came back overinflated. When the study came out in 2005, Congressional members and social scientists asked for the data behind the study so that they could put it through peer review (the same rigorous analytical testing that almost all respected academic studies must undergo).
The MPAA refused. Yet they continue to lobby in DC for tougher copyright laws and stiffer penalties on the basis of secret data and unreviewed studies. This is not how public policy should be made, and the MPAA knows better. If there really is a problem with college students downloading movies, then the data should speak for itself. It should be published openly and subject to scrutiny by any and all comers. There is no need for secrecy, and such secrecy only belies the MPAA's credibility on this issue.
There is room for reasonable debate about the impact of file-sharing on the health of Hollywood. But until the industry comes clean with their data, that debate will always be tainted by suspicion and uncertainty, and ultimately, unsatisfying to all.