In 2012, the Dutch providers Ziggo and XS4All blocked The Pirate Bay, the website that epitomizes the download culture. The block lasted two years, but had very little effect: 70 per cent of the downloaders appeared to have found alternative routes to illegally obtain The Lego Movie or Taylor Swift's latest album.
The Netherlands is in the top five of countries with keen downloaders, NOS Journaal reported, behind Greece, Italy, Australia, and Russia. One in every four Dutch citizens has done it at some time or other, says Law lecturer Bastiaan Leeuw (31), who completed a PhD on the subject just before the summer.
So far, no fines have been issued in the Netherlands yet, but that is about to change. From this autumn, offenders may expect settlement proposals from film distributor Dutch Filmworks; if they don't reply, the case will be taken to court. This has been happening in Germany for some time. “The settlement there is on average 900 euro. It appears to be successful. Or, at least it provides some income for the film distributors and the law firms involved. Whether downloading has decreased, is not clear yet.”
Just handing out fines is not a good idea, says Leeuw. “Hundreds of thousands of court cases have been held in the US over the past few years, in which students sometimes had to pay damages up to 100 thousand dollar. It probably hasn't made any difference. In Sweden, where illegal downloading can be dealt with through criminal justice, piracy initially dropped, but that appeared to be temporary. Downloaders learned to disguise themselves better, for example by using VPN connections. So in fact, you are only catching those people who are not aware of these tricks.”
Severe penalties also evoke social resentment. High fines are not proportional to the crime. “Nobody dies because you have downloaded a film, people would say. Or: ‘Tom Cruise earns enough.’ This is not blatant nonsense: after all, there are no immediate victims and the damages are immaterial, if there are any damages at all.”
The best strategy, according to Leeuw, is a mixture of punishment and temptation. By the latter, the Law lecturer means promoting the legal supply more. Where in 2010, about 40 per cent of the population downloaded music, the figure is now a quarter, partly because of the arrival of Spotify. In the US, it is all about temptation, says Leeuw. “It has never been this easy there to legally purchase films and music, literally with a single press of a button. The quality is better too and prices are lower than before. Meanwhile, the American authorities regard illegal downloading as a fact of life, something that can no longer be eradicated.”
The only problem is that the legal supply at the moment is becoming very spread out. “From the perspective of fighting piracy, this is not helpful. For House of Cards, you need a Netflix subscription, while Game of Thrones can only be watched on HBO. With all those different subscriptions - Disney is going to launch its own streaming service in 2019 - the legal supply is becoming an expensive affair after all. It would be better to provide everything in the form of a bundle.”
Leeuw's research showed that three quarters of the law students downloaded illegally. They are the students who study what is and isn't allowed in the Netherlands. “During the defence of my dissertation, I was asked whether those figures would have been different among medical students. I don't think so. They start at a young age and it is difficult to break away from it later. It becomes a habit. Film? Sure, just go to The Pirate Bay! The study doesn't make much difference, they will only think about their actions years later.”
Leeuw downloaded all sorts of stuff when he was a student, which is partly the reason why he did this PhD research. “I now buy everything, I make more conscious choices and enjoy the films and music that I purchase more. It becomes more valuable.”