Social and moral factors make a difference
The study, carried out by researchers at Newcastle University and the University of East Anglia (UEA), and funded and published by CREATe, the UK research centre for copyright, found that social and moral factors do make a difference when people are deciding whether to unlawfully download.
It also found that greater risk of punishment and penalty size reduce the behaviour - when the penalty amount increased the probability of file-sharing was nearly 40 per cent lower.
An important factor in predicting unlawful file-sharing was social norms, measured by participants’ opinions about the social appropriateness of the activity, which has previously been reported to cost the UK’s creative economy billions of pounds a year.
When the copyright holders were perceived to have made an effort, the level of unlawful file-sharing decreased by about five per cent. Framing them as ‘victims’ and as deserving also made a difference and ‘consumers’ in the study did not risk file-sharing.
Understanding unlawful downloading
The study’s authors, Dr Melanie Parravano and Prof Daniel Zizzo from Newcastle University and Dr Piers Fleming from UEA, aimed to better understand the social and moral causes of unlawful downloading, as well as the effect of financial penalty and punishment.
Prof Zizzo, a professor of economics and Co-Director of the Behavioural and Experimental Northeast Cluster (BENC), said: “Increasing the probability of punishment and the penalty clearly reduce unlawful file sharing in our experiment. As the empirical evidence shows that legal measures to clamp down on unlawful file-sharing have a mixed track record, this suggests that this is not because consumers ignore legal deterrents, but rather because they try to circumvent and avoid them.
“The findings on social norms are particularly interesting, and show how there may be a virtuous circle between changes in norms and changes in behavior. Consider streaming as a growing suitable technical alternative to unlawful file-sharing, especially for music - the availability of a good technical alternative may reduce the ‘coolness’ of unlawful file-sharing. This may reduce how socially appropriate it is perceived to be, which in turn could make it less popular and further reduce its ‘coolness’.”
Dr Fleming, a lecturer in psychology and member of UEA’s Centre for Behavioural and Social Sciences (CBESS), said: “While punishment risk and penalty size reduce unlawful behaviour, they are not the only factors that do so. If people see that someone has put effort in to producing something they are more likely to pay for it. It’s possible that consumers don’t care about the creativity aspect, but we found they actually do to some degree.
“Our findings suggest that making the rights and efforts of copyright holders prominent is useful to reduce unlawful file-sharing. It would be beneficial to have policy measures that try to shift the perceptions of social norms by focusing on the producers and artists and what they do, for example around the time an album is being released, rather than the fact that people should just pay for the material.”
The research team conducted a laboratory experiment with 223 people, who were assigned one of three roles: rights holders, consumers and observers. They took part in various tests ranging from answering questions to performing computerised tasks.
Rights holders were paid a fee and given the opportunity to collect a profit based on sales of a ‘product’, the level of effort they had to put into a task and the profit margin.
Consumers completed tasks to earn money and had to decide whether to buy a rights holder’s product, consume without buying or not to buy. The consumers were aware that the choices they made would have consequences for the rights holder. The researchers found that the decision to unlawfully download corresponded with the decision not to buy, but that people were sensitive to how likely it was that they would get caught.
Consumers did not seem to care whether the rights holders got a return and the wealth of the rights holder - determined by their fee - did not increase the probability of file-sharing.
The observers were used to measure social norms. They looked at the actions available to the consumers and were asked to rate the social appropriateness of each on a scale ranging from very socially inappropriate to very socially appropriate. The researchers found that the observers’ opinions were highly predictive of the behaviour of the consumers in the study.
Around 80-90% of observers found buying somewhat or very socially appropriate, whereas around 70% found obtaining without paying somewhat or very socially inappropriate.
The working paper ‘To pay or not to pay? Determinants of unlawful product acquisition’, Piers Fleming, Melanie Parravano, Daniel Zizzo, is published by CREATe.
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