"We Do Not Have Hollywood on the Outskirts of Warsaw": What Poland Can Teach Us About Circulation (Part One)

The Centrum Cyfrowe Projekt: Polska recently posted an English language translation of their report, The Circulations of Culture, which deals with the informal, sometimes illegal exchange of media content which is occurring in contemporary Poland. This report is a model of the kinds of thoughtful research which should be done in other countries around the world, including the United States, on this highly contentious topic. They start with a recognition that the pervasive language of "piracy" closes off issues which we need to be exploring. As they write:

"Wanting to become familar with and understand new practices one may not assess them in advance, let alone condemn them as illegal or wrong. Only knowing their scale, character and consequences may we assess the influence of new circulations of content on the sphere of culture. The domain remaining out of control of the state and the market is very varied. We lend and borrow books and records. We watch films uploaded to YouTube, but also we download them from websites and p2p networks. Usually we do not think whether we do it legally or not. And the facts of the case may be varied – there is content made available on the web illegally, but we may also use many materials in accordance with the law. Only 13% of Poles buy books, music or films. As many as 33% get hold of them in digital form, in a non-formal manner and for free. This number increases to 39% if we include also the „physical” forms of exchange into informal circulations, such as lending CDs. That is three times more than the market circulation, based on purchases of content."

So far, the report's findings might seem to support those who feel that informal circulation undercuts the development of a commercial market. Yet, the picture they develop turns out to be more complicated. They found that the rate of cultural consumption in contemporary Poland remains very low -- only 44% of Poles had contact with a book over the past twelve months and only 20.80% of Poles went to the cinema over the past year. Among those who are most active online, though, the numbers are significantly higher. 89% of "Internauts" or "heavy Internet users" have read at least one book over the past year, and 82 percent have gone to a movie in the past 12 months. So, while less than 5 percent of Poles have bought a book and less than .1% have bought cps in the past year, those numbers are much higher for those who are most active online -- 68% bought a book, 29 percent bought music.

Most of the heavy internet users acknowledged downloading some form of media content without paying for it -- the number can be as high as 95 percent depending on how we define our terms, but they also represent the core of the existing media market. As the report concludes, illegal downloads do not preclude legal purchases. So much for the argument that it is going to be impossible to get people to pay for content they can download for free. Instead, we need to enter into a much more complex exploration of when and why people who could and do download content illegally choose to pay for media content. So, when the media industry declares war on pirates, it may also be declaring war on its best customers, and this may explain why their tactics so far have been so unsuccessful at slowing the rate of "media piracy," because they are directed at the wrong people, because they do not understand the root causes of the issue, because they are not addressing the key motives for why people choose to pay for media.


Mirek Filiciak,  Justyna Hofmokl, and Alek Tarkowskithe primary authors of the report, were kind enough to participate in the following interview, which helps situate their findings within the context of a broader range of research in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe concerning "sharing cultures" and "informal media economies." In what follows, they share further insights from their research which might guide policy-makers in other parts of the world as they seek to develop a more nuanced understanding of the ways such unauthorized circulations may impact the creative industries and the culture more generally.

For a creative presentation of the report's core findings, visit this site.


Can you provide some context abort the current state of the debates around intellectual property and file sparing in Poland? What motivated your study? 


MIREK FILICIAK: The subject has been moving from the fringes towards the mainstream of the debate on culture for several years now. The shift has motivated the Polish government to work at increasing access to the public domain and to create initiatives such as the Digital School project, which directed a significant amount of funding towards the creation of open educational resources. The protests of Polish youth against ratification of the ACTA treaty in January and February of 2012 were a breakthrough moment for public discussion surrounding the subject. Incidentally, that’s when we unveiled our report, the end result of more than a year’s work.

For our team, taking on the subject was a continuation of our previous initiatives and research projects. Take, for example, the series of “Culture 2.0” conferences we co-organized, one of which featured you as a keynote speaker. Justyna and Alek founded the Polish chapter of Creative Commons and now they’re heading Centrum Cyfrowe (Digital Center), which is a leading Polish organization working towards greater cultural and civic engagement through digital technologies. IP issues are one of the Center’s main areas of interest and thus the organization hosted our research project. I myself have extensive research experience in this field and my previous research projects concerned for example fans of American TV series in Poland, or the “Youth and Media” project (the full report will soon be available in English) which was an ethnographic study of the use of media by Polish youth. We demonstrated in that study that thanks to networked digital media content often flows outside of official markets and without the involvement of institutional intermediaries. Our previous work and experiences with research, policy and activism suggested that the available indicators of cultural participation, often focused on official distribution channels, illustrate only a subset of the cultural practices of Poles.

That’s why we decided to provide empirical data that can be useful both for researchers and for policymakers. In Poland, previously data was limited and skewed: based on outdated research schemes of official statistics or biased studies set to prove that piracy is wrong and harmful for culture. There are some commercial studies, but usually the methodology is kept secret, which makes it hard to debate the results. From the very start, our project was designed to be a scientific study as well as an additional voice in the public debate. We also wanted to propose a set of standards for transparency of methodologies and data presentation (not only did we make the report and raw data sets available to the public, we also prepared a very approachable mashup).


You make a clear point in the opening paragraphs of the report that you are not studying “pirates,” but rather you are researching “informal content sharing practices.” Can you explain the distinction you want to make between the two and why it is such an important one for framing your findings? 


JUSTYNA HOFMOKL: Above all, we wanted to draw public attention to somewhat deeper aspects of cultural activities of Internet users. And to retire the “pirate” label, as it basically leaves no space for debate and substantial arguments. In Poland, content sharing via the Internet has been presented for the last few years strictly as a struggle between “thieves” and “pirates” on one side and “evil corporations” on the other, without making any attempts at trying to understand the phenomenon.

The “piracy” tag draws attention solely to the financial consequences suffered by authors and intermediaries, while omitting issues that are absolutely fundamental for the state’s cultural policy, such as building social and cultural capital through accessing and sharing content. Only by framing the issue in a neutral way can we look for regulatory solutions that will balance the interests of the authors and intermediaries with societal benefits.

That’s why we were determined to take a closer look at the circulation of content outside of the market and reinvigorate the public debate, which doesn’t seem to have developed in Poland in any sensible way in the years that passed since the fall of Napster. Instead of talking about “piracy,” we’d rather discuss the flow of cultural content in the society. It often slips outside of the control and regulation of both governments and markets – and forms informal circulation.

We didn’t want to evaluate the legality of the behaviors we studied – and by the way, that’s not an easy task. In Poland, even the lawyers themselves can’t agree on what classifies as “fair use.” We assume the point of view of the users themselves and take a closer look at the way they access and use cultural content. We want the debate on regulating certain cultural practices on the Internet to be based on facts and reliable data.


Many have argued that the informal sharing of media content online comes at the expense of purchasing media. We hear the argument that people are unlikely to pay for media when they can get so much of it for free. What did you discover around this question through your research? 


ALEK TARKOWSKI: Our results demonstrate that the people who access informal circulations can be roughly divided into two groups. About a quarter of them are people who at the same time download informally and purchase content. Surprisingly enough, they are among the culture industries’ best customers. They make up the largest group among said customers and their expenditures are similar to the expenditures of consumers who don’t engage in illegal downloading. Formal and informal distribution channels are not competing in their case. However, 75% of people who participate in the informal circulation – this amounts to about 25% of all adults in Poland – don’t purchase any media from the formal circulation. They use radio, the TV, and the Internet. The question is whether they’re people that have “quit” the market or ones that never participated in it to begin with. We think (although that’s strictly a hypothesis) that they’re potential future customers or people that don’t participate in formal distribution due to economic reasons. Informal circulations increase the cultural activity of people who, until now, were only passive consumers of mass media.

In our next research projects we are trying to better understand the exact relationship between the two types of circulations, studied through the practices of individual persons. We don’t know for example whether an Internet user that engages with both circulations does it with equal frequency or how downloading influences purchasing behavior over time. We are also pressuring the government to organize a research consortium that would explain the economics of the two circulations.


Mirek Filiciak is a cultural studies scholar, works at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities. He is interested in the influence of digital media on cultural participation practices and research methodologies. Co-editor of Polish cultural studies quarterly Kultura popular (Popular Culture), co-author of book Youth and Media.

Justyna Hofmokl is a sociologist and vice-director of Centrum Cyfrowe - think-and-do-thank building digital society in Poland. She is the author of Internet as a New Commons and published in International Journal of Commons.
Alek Tarkowski is a sociologist and works as director of Centrum Cyfrowe. He is Public Lead of Creative Commons Poland and former member of the Board of Strategic Advisors to the Prime Minister of Poland. His research interests focus around the intersection of intellectual property, society and digital technologies, with a special interest in open models of collaboration and sharing.