Students: Shoplifting CDs Worse Than Downloading Music via P2P?
by: jacqui cheng
Stealing is wrong—or is it? The Internet adds nuances to that question that were once unthinkable. And, according to a newly published study in the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, students definitely think there’s a difference between stealing a CD from a store and pirating that same music online. This belief holds despite the threat of lawsuits and heavy fines from the recording industry, leading the study’s authors to believe that younger people are disconnected from the cost of media when they encounter it online.
The study was conducted by researchers at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and led by professor Talia Wingrove, who surveyed 172 undergraduate students in the midwestern US. The goal was to discover the difference in attitudes when it comes to shoplifting a CD, downloading an album from the Internet, or downloading and sharing the music with others. The researchers then ranked students’ reactions on scales of deterrence (risk of getting caught or punished by the law), morality (the activity being wrong or immoral), social influence (whether peers or parents would disapprove), respect for the industry, and obligation to obey the law.
Overall, the sample agreed that shoplifting a CD was morally wrong, they were socially influenced not to do it, and they felt a high obligation to obey the law. Comparatively, the students ranked downloading music from the Internet as much less severe on nearly every scale—their respect for the music industry was largely the same as the shoplifting scenario, but the rankings indicated that students feel significantly less deterred from stealing online, that it’s not as morally wrong, there’s virtually no social influence not to, and they feel no obligation to obey the law.
The numbers were virtually the same for downloading and sharing, except that there was a slightly higher deterrence factor. The researchers theorize that this may be because of news coverage about lawsuits targeting Internet users who make files available, leaving students feeling more vulnerable if they decide to share their pirated music with friends. Still, the number wasn’t significantly higher, showing that students are only mildly more concerned about the threat of being caught when they share music.
The entire group didn’t behave uniformly, though. The researchers noted that there were no significant differences based on age, race, or year in school, but there were differences between male and female students. According to the study, the men consistently showed lower respect for the music industry in all scenarios, and also felt a lower risk of getting caught compared to the responses from women.
Additionally, students who came from highly educated families showed more respect for the music industry than those from less-educated families. However, those students were also less morally or socially deterred from stealing music than students from less-educated families.
The researchers also noted that the students who show low motivation to avoid stealing for whatever reason are the ones downloading the most. “Not surprisingly, personal downloading frequency was related to almost every compliance factor,” wrote the researchers. “In fact, respect for the music industry was the only unrelated factor.”
Wingrove points out that illegal music downloads do differ significantly from traditional theft in certain ways. After all, there’s no risk of physical harm and it’s easier to avoid getting caught, not to mention “enormous support for the behavior within the Internet community and on college campuses.” Even the threat of mass lawsuits by the RIAA (and increasingly, the MPAA) does not seem to deter students from downloading illegal media.
Then again, the researchers also note that the data comes from a period in Internet history that may have influenced students’ responses to certain questions. For one, the data was collected in the mid-2000s during the highly publicized music industry efforts to curb file sharing. There were fewer legal ways to pay for music during that time than there are today, too, indicating that current students could be more open to legal music options than they were just a few years ago.
“[W]e cannot conclude that the results prove that personal compliance [with the law] is linked to these specific motivations. However, we do believe that this analysis is valuable because it suggests the possibility of a relationship there, one that can be tested in future research,” reads the paper. Still, Wingrove added, “as more industries begin to restrict content and to streamline the purchase of content, perhaps these attitudes will shift and people will have lower expectations of entitlement, but that is a process that will likely happen very slowly.”
Psychology, Crime & Law, 2011. DOI: 10.1080/10683160903179526