I spend a lot of time browsing websites to do with ebooks and publishing, and one subject that turns up with increasing frequency is piracy. I'm very anti-DRM, because a)the only people it inconveniences are people who actually pay for their digital products, and b)it doesn't work. But that's not to say that piracy doesn't exist. In fact, I've never really quite made up my mind about exactly how much of a problem it is or isn't. My personal inclination is to believe that if you price something right and make it easily available, people will hand over their money, but it's one thing to have an inclination and another to have access to cold, hard facts. And those tend to be hard to come by, since any quoted figures tend to have a lot to do with the personal politics or circumstances of the individual speaking about them.
Still, it's hard to ignore situations like the one Cory Doctorow finds himself in - quoted sales of at least a hundred thousand on Little Brother, despite the book being available as a free download. Yes, he's very high-profile thanks to boingboing.net, but nonetheless that high profile itself would, if the pro-DRM parties were correct, lead to less sales, not more (as I write this, I recall Monty Python's strategy of putting high-quality clips of their most famous sketches up on Youtube for free a few years back, resulting in an increase in DVD sales of something like two thousand percent.)
So it was with interest that I read an interview with Steven Soderbergh in The Guardian in which he claimed that the failure of his two-film biopic of Che Guevara was almost entirely down to piracy. Once I read this, I googled around until I found various Hollywood-related forums which pointed out that movies like Transformers 2, while being obvious and clear targets for piracy, were nonetheless extremely high-grossing. It was further suggested that the reason Che hadn't done so well (making back only half of what it cost) was because it was filmed entirely in Spanish ... and, possibly, just wasn't that great.
Which brings me to the suspicion that this will become the new excuse for high-profile films tanking; it's the pirate's fault. Not the lousy script, dodgy effects or bad timing ... the pirates. Your album doesn't suck, it was killed by pirates. Even three-year olds thought your film was vacuous and pointless? Can't be true, so it must be the pirates.
And this is all part of the problem; getting a clear grasp on what's actually going on without the politics getting in the way. So far, from what I can see, the evidence leans very strongly in favour of piracy not being an issue - people who download for free from bittorrent sites are usually the people who spend the most money on entertainment, or they're people who would never have bought the product in the first place. Whether or not you think it's a good or bad thing, it's also an unavoidable fact of life.