The Role of Search Engines in Piracy (CDSA)

By Chris Tribbey

It turns out search engines just might play a role in whether consumers choose to steal content or buy it.

That’s according to a new study out of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, which sought to find out whether search results actually do influence consumers’ choices for piracy when legal consumption channels are readily available.

CMU researchers figured there was only one way to find out whether search engine results influence piracy choices: design a customized search engine that allowed them to manipulate pirated and legal links in search results; use the engine to conduct separate experiments on college-aged and general users; and randomly assign users to a control condition or to conditions where infringing sites or legal sites were artificially promoted in search results. 

The findings?

“Our data show that relative to the non-manipulated (control) condition, the presence of pirate or legal links in search results strongly influences the behavior of both the general and college-aged populations: users are more likely to choose a legal option to acquire the movie when legal sites are promoted, and users are more likely to choose a pirate option when piracy links are promoted,” the study reads.

Analyzing users’ search terms, CMU found evidence that those who set out to steal content at the outset were more likely to actually buy content when legitimate sources turned up. Conversely, those who set out to buy what they wanted were more likely to steal once the right links popped up. “Together our results suggest that reducing the prominence of pirated links can be a viable policy option in the fight against intellectual property theft,” the study reads.

The report suggests that while the Copyright Alert System in the U.S. — which has major Internet service providers (ISPs) working with copyright holders to warn end users of copyright infringement — and the like (including France’s similar HADOPI law) can have a positive affect, search engines just might be the best bet for promoting legal consumption of content.

“One reason for the few studies in this area may be that assigning causation is tricky in this context,” the study reads. “This is because, by design, the top results are also likely to be the most ‘relevant’ results to the user. In short, a user’s desire to look for particular content shapes their search terms and subsequent behavior, making it impossible to use observational or archival data alone to show whether search results influence user choices.”

CMU’s results found that when you give general population users (those just searching for content in general) the chance, four out of five choose to buy content legally, vs. 94% who choose to purchase legally who sought out to do so. Fifty-six percent of those who were looking to steal ended up choosing to buy.

Among the college-aged crowd (18- to 24-year-olds) 62% of users in the control group chose to purchase content legally, compared to 92% in the legal-intent group, and 39% in the infringing-intent group.

“Our results suggest that the prominence of search results can play an important role in users’ subsequent choices about whether to pirate content or consume through legal channels,” the report concluded.

For more information about the study, click here.