In the ongoing battle over intellectual property rights enforcement, facts and figures often serve as the ammunition of choice for both sides. As Wired‘s Threat Level blog points out, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been brandishing a familiar number lately, in an attempt to pressure the Commander in Chief to sign the recently-passed PRO-IP bill: 750,000 American jobs lost to intellectual property theft. That’s a devastating number–representing some eight percent of all Americans who are currently out of work–and is made all the more resonant by our country’s deepening economic crisis. It’s a shame then, for the proponents of PRO-IP, that this 750k figure is about as real as the emperor’s new clothes.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of this and other questionable figures relating to IP theft ($250 billion lost annually by American businesses is another one that might ring a bell), the folks over at Ars Technica put on their detective caps and investigated the origins of these numbers. I won’t spoil the punch line for you but as it turns out, some of these figures have been bandied about since the days when magnetic cassette tapes posed a greater threat to the entertainment industry than the nascent personal computer did. Yet other figures seem blatantly incorrect when looked at closely; one can only assume they were conveniently plucked out of thin air. “[B]oth [of the above] numbers are seemingly decades old,” Ars’ Julian Sanchez writes, “gaining a patina of currency and credibility by virtue of having been laundered through a relay race of respectable sources, even as their origin recedes into the mists.”
While the suspect origins of these numbers are disappointing, they’re hardly surprising. One need not reach far back to find similar examples of questionable numbers being used to justify stronger IP enforcement. Earlier this year, the MPAA was forced to admit that a figure in its much-touted 2005 LEK survey was grossly incorrect (warning: Office doc link). While the 2005 survey posited that a whopping 44% of all copyright infringement takes place on college campuses, as it turns out, that number is actually closer to 3%. Regardless, the damage had already been done: in the three years that the MPAA promoted the results of this study, it succeeded in placing an undue emphasis on college campuses, a fact that can be readily observed by noting the high proportion of RIAA subpoenas and DMCA takedown notices that land at the doorsteps of students.