The EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) Observatory’s study on the infringement of intellectual property rights (IPR) on social media was published last week. Between April and September 2020, publicly accessible data from four of the biggest social media platforms was mined in six EU countries.
The EUIPO’s study compares the volume and frequency of IPR-infringing physical products and illicit digital content with the volume and frequency of genuine physical products and licit digital content, in a bid to identify key indicators of IPR-infringing business models on social media.
It comprises three parts: (i) the use of social media for IPR-infringing activities, (ii) the relative presence of IPR-infringing products and illicit digital content compared to genuine products and licit digital content, and (iii) the different kinds of IPR-infringing business models on social media.
Over 3.9 million conversations relating to selected brands, chosen to represent physical products, were extracted for quantitative and qualitative analysis. Toys, perfume and cosmetics registered the highest number of overall conversational hits in relation to physical products. Films, music and video games were at the top of the chart for digital content.
Use of social media for IPR-infringing activities
Certain social media platforms were preferred by infringers over others due to specific characteristics. Platforms that harness visual content featured a higher number of conversations relating to counterfeit goods. The study suggests that such platforms may be used by counterfeiters as showrooms to promote their products. In contrast, platforms that allow short and direct messages accompanied by hyperlinks were the preferred channels for conversations about illicit digital content.
Relative presence of IPR-infringing products and illicit digital content
Of the conversations about each category of physical product, 11% overall possibly related to counterfeit goods. Clothing ranked highest, with 36% of conversations tripping over the wire. After clothing, came footwear at 21% and jewelry at 20%.
In regard to conversations about each category of digital content, the overall percentage possibly related to piracy was higher at 35%. E-books came in first at 61%, followed by TV shows at 48% and music at 43%. (It’s worth noting that identifying piracy is complicated, as it’s often difficult for users to differentiate between licit and illicit content online.)
IPR-infringing business models on social media
The EUIPO’s study highlights the difficulty in finding IPR-infringing patterns on social media. The conversations relating to IPR infringement of physical products concerned predominantly promotions and commercial activities, and these were often confusingly similar to those of legitimate brands. The conversations relating to IPR infringement of digital content mainly involved users intentionally trying to access pirated content, thus removing the need for active piracy business models.
However, the study flags what the EUIPO calls “bundles-of-clues” that indicate possible IPR-infringing business models based on content, price and discounts, imagery, redirection, quantity of personal information, and refund and delivery policies.
Social media may be suffering from what some have called a credibility crisis: fake news, fake reviews, and fake goods. Rights owners are all too familiar with infringement of their IPR on social media, ever since infringers began migrating from internet sales platforms some time ago.
While the forum of social media may lend itself to better IPR enforcement, the EUIPO’s study shows that online counterfeiting and piracy are as prevalent as ever. Its “bundles-of-clues” approach is a useful tool for brands and social media platforms alike.
The report is available here.
The growth of e-commerce has been well documented, but how the rise of different technologies and consumer habits has affected intellectual property rights infringement on the internet and, in particular, on social media platforms, is not clear.