Do Libraries Give Us the Freedom to Steal?

Freedom to Steal | Behavioral economicsI am interested in the morally ambiguous realm of music/video/book piracy, a place where everyone has something to say and no qualms about saying it. A couple weeks ago, over a chocolate croissant, I was having what was probably my 5,637th conversation on this topic, and my new friend (for his own protection let’s just call him Steve — apologies to all the Steves out there) began voicing his opinions: he was vehemently against illegal downloading, but fine with checking CDs out from the library and making personal copies for himself.

The conversation went as follows:

Me: “You know that’s illegal?”

Steve: “It’s a gray area.”

Me: “According to the law, it is not.”

Steve: “I still think it is kind of gray. And I need to put the songs on my iPod to listen to them, so I have to copy them anyway.”

After this conversation I was left wondering whether Steve was a criminal anomaly or if the rest of America was on his side. So I divided a sample of Americans into two groups and had them rate the moral “wrongness” of the two types of piracy. Group A) was told that Steve downloaded an album online without paying and Group B) was told that Steve checked out the CD from the library and made a personal copy.

The Conclusion:  America agrees with Steve. People generally viewed Steve’s actions as significantly less morally adverse when he made a copy from the library.  From a legal perspective, Steve had committed an equally unlawful act, but Americans still viewed the crimes differently.

So how could (illegally) copying from the library be viewed as less wrong than (illegally) downloading?

Illegal downloading has a sting against it while copying does not. Copying does not feel as much like stealing. There’s also a fellow person or institution (like a library or generous friend) to share your sin with. Pirates are a tainted outgroup, but anyone can be a copier of media.

Libraries make it okay. It can be safely assumed that libraries know that we have the ability to copy CDs but make no efforts to stop us; by providing us with the opportunity, they are more or less condoning piracy.

It’s so easy to copy CDs.  For this study our sample consisted mostly of people who do not know how to illegally download online (e.g., they were not particularly aware of cyber lockers or torrent clients). In other words, they probably know how to copy and burn a CD but not illegally download music.  I believe that most of the moral qualms people have against piracy would be wiped away if they just learned a virus-free, super-easy way to pirate high quality media.

I think the “easy” factor is partially why people view streaming illegal content (watching the content within browser without downloading it) as different from illegally downloading. Many illegal streamers say they are okay with streaming but not downloading because streaming is just “borrowing.” I think that, in actuality, people choose not to download because they do not know how, they find downloading to be a hassle, or are scared of viruses rather than because of their high moral standards. To avoid looking incompetent, they say (and believe) that the reason they don’t illegally download is because that type of piracy is morally wrong. But the kind they can do and easily benefit from (like copying from library CDs) is okay.

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