Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press
CHICAGO — Young people want their music, TV and movies now — even if it means they get these things illegally.
A recent Columbia University survey found, in fact, that 70 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they had bought, copied or downloaded unauthorized music, TV shows or movies, compared with 46 percent of all adults who'd done the same.
With such an entrenched attitude, what can be done about widespread online piracy?
Certainly law enforcement has gone after scofflaws like these, hitting them with fines and, in some cases, even jail time. Congress is considering controversial anti-piracy bills that would, among other things, forbid search engines from linking to foreign websites accused of copyright infringement. And there are lawsuits pitting media heavyweights against Internet firms — notably Viacom's billion-dollar litigation against YouTube.
But here's a radical notion to consider: What if young people who steal content weren't viewed as the problem?
What if they and advocates for maximum online access could persuade the entertainment industry to loosen its tight grip on its coveted, copyrighted material — quite the opposite of what the industry is trying to do right now?
"The real problem is not pirates downloading illegally, but a failure to innovate on the part of the content providers," says Steven Budd, a law student at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Like it or not, that's how a lot of people of his generation view the situation. And some experts think they're gaining clout, as they insist on easy access to music and other content while the Internet world loudly protests anti-piracy legislation that it says unfairly puts the responsibility of policing piracy sites on search engines and other sites.
"We've seen the emergence of a real social movement around these issues," says Joe Karaganis, vice president of The American Assembly, a public policy institute at Columbia University, which oversaw the recent survey, funded by a grant from Google.
He's talking, in part, about "blackouts" staged by popular Internet sites that included Wikipedia, the user-generated online encyclopedia, and Reddit, the social news website. With support from Google, Facebook and Twitter, they were protesting the proposed federal anti-piracy bills.
But here's the surprising part — a lot of young people don't necessarily expect to get movies, TV shows and music for free.
"I do think people would pay for this content if it's reasonably priced and it's available when they want to watch it," says Srikant Mikkilineni, a law student at Drake University in Des Moines.
Not wanting to mar his law school record, Mikkilineni pays for the songs, movies and TV shows he downloads. But he does so grudgingly. "Right now, they want us to pay multiple times for the same content," he says, complaining that that's not reasonable.
If he buys a DVD, for instance, it's $15. He can watch it on his laptop — but it's illegal for him to copy it in order to watch it on his iPod or smart phone.
Many young people point to Apple's iTunes service as a model that could be replicated by other entertainment companies.
"iTunes changed the landscape for music because it made it far too convenient and much easier than downloading music through alternative methods (even illegal ones)," says Matt Gardner, an information technology student at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
But even more than convenience, a recent study at Duke University found that cost was the major factor that drives college students to copy entertainment content illegally. Researchers there found that the lower the students' income, including their parents' income, the more likely they were to search for free, illegal options.
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