People feel more comfortable committing digital piracy than physical theft for a variety of reasons, according to experimental research by Wojciech Hardy and colleagues, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s 2014 annual conference.
Their study finds that as many as five out of six dimensions contribute to the discrepancy, including the fact that ''stealing'' a digital file is not a physical act; it often requires no protective measures to be broken; and it causes no direct loss, as the original owners keeps their copy. Co-author Wojciech Hardy comments:?
''Our findings suggest that creative industries could benefit from refocusing awareness campaigns.
''Indeed, given that digital piracy differs on so many ethically relevant dimensions from a typical act of theft, persuading the public that they are really the same seems futile.''
To find out why there appears to be a difference in people''s attitudes towards digitalpiracy and physical theft, the researchers asked students a series of hypothetical questions to determine which behaviours they found acceptable. The researchers included several possible differentiating factors, including physicality, breach of protection and losses. They also asked about people''s own ethical views and their perceptions of prevailing social norms.
This study addresses the striking difference in ethical judgment between an act of digital piracy and an act of theft. Indeed, despite all the efforts of the industry trying to equate the two, millions of internet users download unauthorised content on a daily basis, seemingly without a bad conscience.
To be sure, there are important differences between digital piracy and standard theft. To name some examples, ''stealing'' a digital file is not a physical act; often requires no protective measures to be broken; causes no direct loss, as the original owner keeps his or her copy; etc.
To find out which difference (between piracy and theft) makes the (ethical) difference,the researchers conducted a vignette experiment – they let student participants evaluate different hypothetical behaviours described in mini-stories featuring an individual called Johnny.
The stories were constructed by individually manipulating various dimensions that might contribute to the discrepancy, such as physicality, breach of protection or losses. For example, the students were indirectly asked whether Johnny could be excused if he had stolen an object he knew the present owner would never actually need (hence, like in digital piracy, there was no direct loss).
Similarly, the participants could indicate if Johnny''s infringement was more seriou s if it involved cracking DRM protection and so on. For the same set of stories, some of theparticipants were asked about their own ethical views and others about their perception of prevailing social norms.
The results indicate that there is no single dimension that distinguishes theft from digital piracy. As many as five out of six dimensions contribute to the discrepancy. The irrelevant one is the question whether or not alternatives are available (even though''pirates'' often seek excuse in the claim that there is no feasible legal way to obtain the file they want). Overall, individual ethical judgments of various acts of piracy tend to be somewhat stricter than the perceived social norm, but this difference is not very large.
These findings suggest that creative industries could benefit from refocusing awareness campaigns. Indeed, given that digital piracy differs on so many ethically relevant dimensions from a typical act of theft, persuading the public that they are really the same seems futile. Conversely, since reported ethical norms are stricter than social norms, the common perception of digital piracy being completely benign is false.
''Why is online piracy ethically different from theft? A vignette experiment'' by Wojciech Hardy, Michal Krawczyk and Joanna Tyrowicz