Few People Download Illegally, But Those That Do, Do It A Lot

The few, the mighty. That’s one way to describe illegal downloading habits.

Ofcom, the United Kingdom (UK) communications regulator, has released topical data on digital downloads that violate copyright regulation. This study, based on market research with a sample of over 5,000 individuals, is an expansive and reliable glimpse into the downloading habits of internet users. The key findings are:

  • One in six (17%) UK internet users over the age of 12 downloaded at least one piece of illegal content over the three month monitoring period
  • 4% downloaded exclusively illegal content
  • The top 10% of infringers were responsible for 79% of all illegal downloads
  • Men are more likely to download illegal content than women
  • Those under 34 years of age are more likely to download than those 34 and older
  • Movies were illegally downloaded more than any other type of content
  • uTorrent was the most common platform used for illegal downloads

Context and Methodology Analysis

To provide some context, these overall rates are lower than some of the hype would have us believe. As someone who has been following illegal downloading trends since the inception of the technology, I was surprised and delighted that fewer than one in five people download illegal content.

But it’s not all good news. The age bias could indicate a darker hypothesis that I’ve held for many years – that the more technical capability individuals have, the more likely those individuals are to download illegally. Torrenting or competing methods require a sophisticated knowledge of the internet that is statistically less likely to be held by older users. It’s possible that baby boomers are purchasing their movies on iTunes simply for the ease-of-use and straightforwardness of the service. Unfortunately, this hypothesis is immensely difficult to prove. As a former market researcher, I’m cognizant of the response bias that surveyed populations have when it comes to answering questions about their propensity to participate in illegal activity. Regardless of how solidly the questions were drafted, people would under-report their likeliness to illegally download copyright protected material.

This is the brilliance of the methodology employed in the Ofcom study; monitoring actual behaviour rather than asking participants to report behaviour leads to greater accuracy. The study is also methodologically sound because it has a large sample size, and a sample size recruited in multiple different ways.

It also goes above and beyond traditional polling techniques in one other important way. Eighteen years and older is a common way to begin a population sample; however, as this study confirms in its decision to include participants as young as 12 years old, practical internet studies should include teens and pre-teens in order to be as accurate as possible. Teens use the internet extensively – both while mobile and at home – and so they should rightly be included to assess internet usage behaviour by the population as a whole.

One caveat to the sample, and perhaps an obvious one, is the regional bias. The sample is entirely drawn from the UK and as such, the data is only truly representative of that area of the world. While this data may also be directionally representative for Anglophone Western countries with similar internet penetration rates, it would not be a useful reference when looking at many other countries and regions around the world.


Ofcom’s work is incredibly important here. There is simply no replacement for reliable, open, and accessible data. Moreover, this study is ongoing, which provides valuable benchmarking and trend tracking. For Canadians reviewing the research, this study raises the natural question: what exactly is the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) doing research-wise? The answer may surprise you. They do, in fact, provide some statistical information regarding telecommunications use in Canada.

But they can do more, and they can do it better. Canada deserves a high-calibre, internet-usage think-tank akin to the United States’ Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. Up until now I’ve always envisioned it to be executed by StatsCan, but perhaps the CRTC is a better fit to take on and drive this project. Canadians need more accurate data collection about our internet penetration, usage, and most importantly, the way it is impacting our daily lives.

Ultimately, in my opinion, the important question isn’t how many Canadians are downloading illegal material. The core question is: are we trending toward more or fewer illegal downloads? And if we are trending upward, such a finding is a fundamental starting point to launching a much-needed national debate on piracy in Canada.

Denise Brunsdon is an IPilogue Editor, JD/MBA Candidate at Western University, and researcher for GRAND (Graphics, Research and New Media) Centre.
Denise Brunsdon is an IPilogue Editor, JD/MBA Candidate at Western University, and researcher for GRAND (Graphics, Research and New Media) Centre.
  1. This is an excellent blog Denise.

    I agree with your conclusions, and agree that there is probably a functional relationship between tech-saviness and illegal online activity.

    Also agree that going forward the question is one of relativity. Optimistically, I would like to think there is a decrease in illegal activity as a result of private business models having had come to terms with the digital marketplace and decided to make IP easily accessible for a reasonable prices online. I specifically think of music and broadcasts of news/sports/etc, where consumers feel that the benefit of convenience while paying a reasonable price is a lower transaction cost than the time/risk of finding illegal versions, which inevitably are becoming less available to the casual user/consumer. In other words, competing with piracy. Obviously, can’t say if that is at all what is going on, but my optimistic hope.

    As a sidenote-
    Industry Canada, several years ago, published a study specifically on illegal downloads of online music, it is probably still available on their site. However, from what I can tell, the reliability of the study has been roundly condemned (which may simply be advocacy on the part of certain interests). Either way, a study does exist.

  2. Ken – thanks for the feedback. Much appreciated. And for the flag on the Industry Canada data. Even if previous studies haven’t been all that great, it is an indicator that they may do some (hopefully better) in the future.

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