Students see illegal downloading in a different light to the theft of a CD

May 2011


A newly published study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln published in the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, shows that young people (here students) think there’s a difference between stealing a CD from a store and pirating that same music online ,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, led by Professor Talia Wingrove, surveyed 172 undergraduate students in the midwestern US in the mid 2000s. 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 asmuchless 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 – at a time when the RIAA’s actions against individuals were well publicized (and well criticized!)

The numbers were virtually the same for downloading and sharing, except that there was a slightly higher deterrence factor, possibly because of news coverage about lawsuits targeting Internet users who make files available, although the number wasn’t significantly higher, showing that students are only mildly more concerned about the threat of being caught when they share music. Males 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. Twila Wingrove, said “The results suggest that students perceive shoplifting and digital piracy differently, despite the fact that they are both forms of theft.”

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