Music, Movie and Software Piracy: What’s Your Chance of Getting Caught?

Illegal Downloading

“No two ways about it: Piracy is legally and morally wrong.”

We’ve all heard it a million times. We’ve heard the analogies to walking out of a store with a CD under your jacket, sending software developers straight to the unemployment line or ripping food right out of a poor key grip’s mouth. And for some of us, we’ve even seen people we know ensnared by the law when they finally get caught gorging on free motion pictures and music.

Like drivers who slow down to pass a state trooper ticketing another driver, then quickly slam on the gas to get back up to 85 though, not everyone fears the reaper. After all – who hasn’t questioned whether Jay-Z and his record company really need another $12.99, scoffed at paying $10 for a single movie ticket, or wondered why they should pay money for a video game crippled by DRM when they could simply pirate a limitation-free version? The reality is that quite a few people are willing to take the risk and live dangerously.

But what is that risk, anyway? The odds of the RIAA knocking at your door are a lot harder to judge than the odds that you’ll eventually whiz by a highway median with a cop parked behind the bushes. And the consequences are potentially a lot more severe.

Crunching the Numbers: Your Odds of Getting Caught

Ten years after the RIAA first busted into the party of unlimited Backstreet Boys and Blink 182 swapping known as Napster, we now have plenty of data to examine when it comes to piracy. And the conclusions are pretty interesting.

Typing KeyboardAccording to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 36 million American admitted to downloading music or video files on the Internet in 2005. That’s among a nation of 296 million people in the same year according to the U.S. Census Bureau – or roughly 12 out of every hundred Americans. In a more recent Pew survey, that number leapt to 15 percent of Americans, or 45.6 million, by 2008 population estimates.

The question, of course, is how many of these steal-from-home thieves were caught. That’s a number in some dispute. The RIAA started chasing individual file sharers back in 2003, then ended the offensive in 2008, leaving us a finite number of people to look at.

How many ended up in the nets? Estimates range from 18,000 to 35,000, depending on who you ask. Many reputable sources, including Pew, cite the 35,000 figure, but as an RIAA spokeswoman clarified to Ars Technica, that number most likely represents the number of cases, which is different from the number of people caught because many ended up with two cases – first an anonymous Doe, then again as named defendant. Meanwhile, the Electronic Freedom Foundation maintains that “well over 28,000 individuals” have faced lawsuits, either threatened, filed, or settled. Which is the number we’ll use.

RIAA AdAssuming you shared music online for all five years of the RIAA’s legal hunt, among an (eventual) crowd of 45.6 million, that’s a one in 1,629 chance of getting caught during that time period. If we convert that to the one-year odds so frequently cited for freak accidents, you’re looking at a one in 8,129 chance, in any given year. You’re more likely to be killed in an accidental injury within the same year (a one-in-2,517 roll of the dice every time you put another candle in the cake) than face an RIAA lawsuit.

What about the MPAA? Unlike the RIAA, which built a name for itself stringing up individuals like students, clueless parents and single mothers for file sharing, the MPAA has largely strayed from the practice (with some rare exceptions). Instead, the organization finds itself more frequently locking horns with the ringleaders who tape, rip and distribute copyrighted movies, like the infamous Pirate Bay. In other words: not you. (We hope.) The same goes for the Business Software Alliance, which tracks software piracy, but dedicates most of its legal resources to chasing major distributors of pirated goods, and large businesses that use them.

The good news after all of that math: The heaviest threat has passed. The RIAA officially waved its white flag back in December 2008, ending its mass lawsuit strategy in favor of ISP warnings and rare lawsuits for heavy file sharers and those who ignore warnings.

What’s the Ticket, Officer?

Enough odds. What do convicted file sharers actually have to shell out?

CD LockMajor lawsuits like that of the infamous Jammie Thomas (who a court ordered to pay $1.92 million in damages for her theft of 24 songs) have the tendency to terrify people. But they’re the exceptions, not the rule. Thomas, for instance, received the same cease-and-desist letter that hundreds of other file sharers did, but refused to settle and took her case to trial, not once but twice.

More typically, accused infringers settle upon first contact with the organization, dodging legal battles entirely and keeping out of the public eye. According to the Electronic Freedom Foundation, “Most lawsuit targets settle their cases for amounts ranging between $3,000 and $11,000.” At that price, it’s a difficult proposition to refuse, considering the costs that can rack up for legal costs. For those who just want to be done with it, the RIAA even offered a Web site, P2PLawsuits.com, where they could take care of the entire process online in a matter of minutes.

Think you can stand before a court and plead your case without any hired legal schmucks? It’s a costly gamble to make. Arizona resident Jeffrey Howell, for instance, took his chances and ended up walking away with a $40,850 fine.

RIAA CashEven among those who lawyer up, results typically aren’t much better, and the potential penalties also steepen significantly. Copyright laws allow courts to assign value of between $750 and $150,000 per song when a party is found guilty, a bit of ambiguity that came back to burn Jammie Thomas when the courts ordered her to pay $80,000 per song.

Of course, not every accused file sharer crumples under foot in court. Tanya Andersen may be one of the best examples. The single mother from Portland, Oregon took the RIAA to court when they slapped her with a request for $4,000, battled for two years to clear her name, then collected over $100,000 in legal fees from the RIAA.

The Final Verdict

To be quite blunt, your chances of writing a four-digit check to the RIAA after snagging one too many Eminem albums are next to nil, especially now that the organization has backed off that strategy. And to file hoarders who amass hundreds or even thousands of pirated albums and movies, $3,000 might even look like a bargain compared to the cost of going legit and paying for them all from the beginning.

Maybe that’s why the practice of prosecuting individual consumers of pirated material has fizzled down to almost nothing, while organizations like the RIAA shift their focus to the supply side, including vendors who make thousands of peddling pirated wares.

The moral case against piracy is one we’ll leave to another day. But for pure pragmatists who steer clear of piracy on fear alone, the lesson is this: The high seas aren’t nearly as treacherous as you might think.

Gaming

How skillful translations helped these Japanese video games gain global appeal

Thanks to their translators, some Japanese games are seeing greater success abroad than at home, teaching players about Japan and its culture in the process.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Gaming

Niantic promises to make Pokémon Go less troublesome for homeowners

Niantic is looking to settle the lawsuits filed by angry homeowners who were affected by hordes of Pokémon Go players trespassing on their properties. Niantic promised to resolve complaints within 15 days, among other things.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix, from 'Haunting of Hill House’ to ‘Norsemen’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Business

Apple loses battle to use Intel modems in Germany in latest clash with Qualcomm

Apple is following the Federal Trade Commission's lead and has sued Qualcomm for a massive $1 billion in the U.S., $145 million in China, and also in the U.K., claiming the company charged onerous royalties for its patented tech.
Gaming

The history of Battle Royale: From mod to worldwide phenomenon

Battle royale games like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds’ and Fortnite have become the biggest trend in video games. The genre is also pushing the envelope in Twitch streaming and eSports.
Gaming

Bringing realism to VR is complex, but these developers found a way in holograms

Making virtual reality feel real is the hardest job of all VR developers. For Awake: Episode One, StartVR used volumetric recording, rather than motion capture, to bring its characters to life like never before.
Cars

Mazda Hot Lap Challenge winner to test drive in MX-5 Cup car

Mazda Motorsports and iRacing partnered to find undiscovered talent in the gaming world. Now there’s a winner who has earned a test day in a Global MX-5 Cup car, and a new chance to win in 2019.
Mobile

Schubert left Symphony No. 8 unfinished. A smartphone’s A.I. just completed it

We all know computers can be used to make music, but can artificial intelligence be used to not only generate music, but complete one of the most famous unfinished symphonies of all time? Huawei has used its A.I. to find out.
Home Theater

From live VR to the stadium beer line, 5G will revolutionize how we watch sports

As 5G prepares to roll out across the U.S., nearly every experience will benefit, including sports. Instant mobile access to blazing-fast internet will change the way we experience our favorite sports, both in the stadium and at home.
Emerging Tech

The next big challenge for Google’s A.I. is a card game you’ve never heard of

DeepMind, the Alphabet-owned deep learning company, thinks the next big challenge in A.I. is mastering a cooperative card game about fireworks, called Hanabi. Here's why it's so tough.
Health & Fitness

My niece lost her hearing. This is a story about how technology brought it back

For people with profound hearing loss, cochlear implants can restore sound. We explore what the procedure entails, how the system works, and take a look at the latest developments from Australian company Cochlear.
Computing

The web has grown up, but browsers haven’t. It’s time for a reboot

The web has changed a lot over the years, and so has the way we use it. The thing that hasn’t changed? The web browser, the tool every one of us depends on. Here's why it's well past time for new ideas.
Emerging Tech

Does a steam-powered spacecraft hold the key to exploring the solar system?

A newly developed spacecraft prototype capable of using steam as a propellent may help the first miners survey potential dig sites and identify space rocks best fit for mining missions. Future versions may be fitted with sensors, allowing…