What Filesharing Studies Really Say: Part 17 – Culture and Ethics of FileSharing

This is part 17 of the re-publication of my meta-analysis of what filesharing studies really say.

[Originally published on ZeroPaid on may of 2012.]

We are now on the final three studies in our series of file-sharing studies we are reviewing. If you can believe it, one study even touched on philosophy, psychology and ethics of the average file-sharer. So, we’ll, once again, get another interesting and unique look at file-sharing.

One of the things that is often discussed is the thinking behind while file-sharers even do file-sharing in the first place. This plays well into the topic of entertainment corporations trying to create “education campaigns” in an effort to make file-sharing seem less attractive and, at times, play the moral card. So, while on first glance, a study that discusses ethics and touches on psychology might not necessarily seem relevant on first glance, a study like this has the potential to be very relevant in that it could shed light on whether or not it’s even useful to have these education campaigns in the first place.

The study goes by the title “Ethical Decisions About Sharing Music Files in the P2P Environment”. This particular study was published in 2008 in the Journal of Business Ethics.

The abstract shows a lot of promise that this could be an interesting read:

Digitized information and network have made an enormous impact on the music and movie industries. Internet piracy is popular and has greatly threatened the companies in these industries. This study tests Hunt-Vitells ethical decision model and attempts to understand why and how people share unauthorized music files with others in the peer-to-peer (P2P) network. The norm of anti-piracy, the ideology of free software, the norm of reciprocity, and the ideology of consumer rights are proposed as four deontological norms related to using P2P systems.

In addition, the abstract also notes what the entertainment industries response should be:

This finding suggests that to protect their property rights, record companies should try to realize the consumer benefits brought via new digital and network technology, instead of simply declaring their intellectual property and resisting the innovations resulting from new technologies.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of angles of looking at the debate on copyright and many conclude that there needs to be a revamped business model to respond to today’s digital environment, but I’m actually less familiar with the angle of business and personal ethics outside of some of the seemingly less than ethical business practices seen in the industry (i.e. Sony being so aggressive about enforcing their intellectual property only to one day get sued and raided for software piracy in France themselves which, to this day, still happens to be one of the most memorable stories I’ve ever reported on partly because I had to fight back tears from laughing so hard while writing the story at the time). So, I can see some justification going on from that perspective.

The beginning of the study contains the following:

Since the cost of reproducing digitized information is low and the quality of the copies is almost identical to the original, piracy has been recognized as a major ethical issue in the information age (Mason, 1986). Under current laws, unauthorized copying of copyrighted files are an invasion of intellectual property rights (Lessig, 2002; Von Lohmann, 2003); however, people still share a huge amount of digital music and movies in P2P networks.

You can really get a very specific angle here. It’s not really legal (depending on which country and what circumstances of course), yet people engage in it anyway. Why is that? Just a little below that notes a familiar comment that, I think, plays a role in why people engage in file-sharing in the first place:

Some people suggest that online file sharing is a beneficial distribution tool and a new marketing opportunity for artists, especially the ‘‘new’’ ones; it is a channel where they can distribute and market their products at a modest price (Bhattacharjee et al., 2003; Ki et al., 2006). Due to the positive effect of sampling, consumers may be willing to pay more for their music because the match between product characteristics and buyers tastes has improved (Peitz and Waelbroeck, 2006).

So, it’s plausible that when you are helping others discover new music, file-sharing may be justified for some people as it also helps artists get their content out to new potential customers. While I’m not sure how many people look at it from that angle, I see this as highly plausible. the study went on to comment that ethical decisions are vastly different from shoplifting. I can easily see file-sharers saying to this, “Well, duh. That’s because the two actions are technically different.”

For those with expertise in philosophy, the literature may be of particular interest. While discussing various models in the literature review section, the study selected on particular model to focus on:

Hunt and Vitells (1986) model, however, presents the various philosophical theories to a further extent. The Hunt Vitell model uses both the deontological and teleological theories of moral philosophy to describe the ethical decision-making process (Hunt and Vitell, 1986). Therefore, it is consistent with normative ethical theories in moral philosophy, and empirical works based on the model can be easily used to improve the normative prescriptions.

The study went on at some length discussing heavily on how this model applies in this case. One paragraph was a particularly dense read, but worth reading even if some unpacking is involved:

Sharing files in the P2P network adds more differences from buying pirated products. First, consumers may know that purchasing a pirated CD will be a direct substitute for their possible purchase of the original copyrighted CD. Consumers downloading music files from the Internet, however, may justify this behavior as sampling and may still be willing to buy the CD if he/she likes the music (Bhattacharjee et al., 2003; Ki et al., 2006). Second, P2P system users also need to provide files to others. Although consumers may not be willing to pay pirates and promote the criminal activities of counterfeiters (Chiou et al., 2005), P2P system users may perceive themselves as participating in a mutually beneficial social group, instead of contributing to a commercial deal that may hurt the copyright holder. Finally, de-individuation caused by the anonymity of computer-mediated communication may reduce the impact of social norms and stimulate anti-normative behavior (Kiesler et al., 1984; Rutter, 1984; Short et al., 1976). The proliferation of free music via the Internet may also create ethical ambiguity (Chiou et al., 2005). As a result, consumers may have no idea that they are infringing upon others copyrights when they download music files from the Internet (Chiou et al., 2005).

I’d say this covers a fair bit of ground on this topic alone. You are seemingly anonymous (I would add to this by saying one of many fish in the sea and getting sued can be seen as a sort of reverse lottery – extremely unlikely). Most people don’t find the ethics of purchasing a bootlegged CD acceptable. Also, the community and discovery aspect as touched on earlier in this review.

The paper then goes on to review numerous hypothesis that, even if I just posted all of them that were explored, it actually makes for a tough read – even for someone with an educated background like myself. So, for the sake of brevity, 9 different hypothesis were explored.

The study then explained how the data was gathered:

The study was conducted using a scenario survey, as suggested by Hunt and Vitell (1986). Since sharing music files using a P2P system is popular among teenagers, high school and university students were selected as the subjects for this study.


To ensure that the questionnaires scenarios, alternatives, consequences, and measurement items were appropriate and understandable to even the youngest subjects in this study, a pre-test was conducted with 34 first-year junior high school students. Some items and consequences were revised according to interviews with the subjects. Then, a pilot-study was conducted with 73 junior high school students to evaluate the validity and reliability of the measurements.

So, it is yet another survey. The study went on to say that various scenarios were given and respondents were asked to mark a number from 1-7 on whether they agree with that statement or not. As for the actual survey (if you were worried about sample size of this):

The actual surveys were conducted in classes with a convenient sample of high school and college students. The subjects were asked to follow the sequence of the questionnaire when answering. Although the subjects were told that it was all right if they did not participate in the study, they still might not be truly voluntary in a classroom environment. Therefore, we used an item regarding the desirability of consequences as the criterion for a valid sample. Respondents who answered that they would like to be sued for piracy were invalid. A total of 674 questionnaires were submitted and 451 valid and complete samples were acquired.

One of the findings was:

people who have paid for using the system care less about piracy. Because we did not mention the legal issue while introducing the scenario, the respondents might not recognize that they are engaging in an illegal activity when copying files from a paid service. It also suggests users may not feel guilty when they have paid for benefits they gain. Although we cannot distinguish between ethical and legal considerations, this may explain why P2P systems that charge are still popular, even though free or open source P2P systems are available.

I’m trying to think of paid p2p services from 2008 and earlier and the only ones that come to mind are the applications that offer a “pro” version for a certain amount of money. Another one was a service like AllOfMP3 which was suppose to be a service similar to iTunes, so not necessarily p2p. An additional possibility is a premium UseNet service (you’d be paying for the servers more than the content) Beyond that, the only one’s I can think of are the scam versions where websites sell free software. Another possibility is paying for a premium account for a cyberlocker, but it’s debatable if that’s what’s being referred to here. If it’s none of the above that’s being referenced here, I am a little at a loss right now as to what services that are being referred to here as a real world example.

In addition, the study found the following:

On the other hand, respondents who might not be familiar with using freeware could have interpreted ‘‘using a free system’’ as using an unauthorized copy or account. These results may indicate that people care more about software piracy than music piracy while using a P2P system. A large number of people sharing copyrighted music files on a P2P network may create a deindividuation effect and reduce the impact of the anti-piracy norm (Prentice-Dunn and Rogers, 1982; Zimbardo, 1969).

Another finding was that there were some who felt the atmosphere of reciprocity and wanted to contribute to it. Another one was this:

the impact of the belief in the ideology of consumer rights was greater than most of the beliefs in other norms. The innovation of digital technology has increased consumers expectations. Unsatisfied consumers, created by record companies refusing to acknowledge the benefits of new technology, will try to find solutions themselves.

I personally think the last one is pretty understandable (perhaps, partly because I may in some form fall in to that category because the industry has left an unsolved problem on the table and, at times, tried to make the problem go away by trying to wind the clock back – and failing to do so).

The study then went on to make conclusions which included the following:

Consumer rights may be the major and general cause for sharing music files in the P2P network. Besides, people who believe in the norm of reciprocity will be more likely to provide the files they downloaded to the others, and people with the ideology of freeware will be more likely to actively look for music files and them with peers in the network. The norm of reciprocity and the ideology of freeware can also motive people to use a free P2P system to sharing music files, but their using free P2P systems is discouraged by their belief in the norm of anti-piracy. Some implications for the online music piracy and for the use of the Hunt Vitell model with multiple norms should be noticed.


As new technologies like the P2P systems develop, the norms for using the technology are constructed through discourses between divergent interest groups to gain disciplinary power and solve conflicts (Spitz and Hunter, 2003; Denegri-Knott, 2004). Excuses or justifications for ones norm-violating behaviors are constructed not only in the society, but also in the minds of the users. The Hunt Vitell model may not effectively describe how people make ethical judgments (Cole et al., 2000). Norm-violating consumers may first employ post decision neutralization to rationalize actions they or others would normally consider wrong. If the techniques are effective in mitigating self blame, consumers may internalize them and use them prior to committing unethical consumer behaviors (Strutton et al., 1997).


These findings have implications for record companies. Since consumers can easily rationalize their behavior while copying files from the Internet, simply proclaiming intellectual property rights and the norm of anti-piracy may be ineffective for reducing unauthorized copying. Additionally, this study found that people might not be concerned about piracy when they have already paid for a P2P system. The popularity of P2P systems that charge may suggest that people would like to pay small fees to reduce their guilt or legal considerations about copying files, even when there is free music on the Internet. The success of iTunes firmly supports this idea. Therefore, companies should try to apply and realize the advantages of new technologies to increase consumers benefits, instead of resisting change, simply declaring their rights, and imposing the guilt of piracy on consumers. Consumers may be more willing to respect companies intellectual property rights if these companies care more about the welfare of their customers.

Overall, it’s an interesting angle even if less explored than others. Because file-sharing is such a social norm and because there is money to be made in this environment, it is probably better to simply adopt a different business model and harness what technology has to offer rather than simply trying to do things like say that customers engage in immoral and unethical activities when they participate in file-sharing that infringes on copyrighted material. Rather, perhaps positive reinforcement may be a better way to go as well.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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