Research Blog Series: Exploring Unlawful File Sharing

Why do people pirate or stream media unlawfully? This question was investigated by Daniel Zizzo and Piers Fleming, and summarised for the Research Blog Series.


Projects: Sharing, Streaming, Stealing or Socialising? and A field Experiment of Detriments of Unlawful file sharing

Investigators: Dr Piers Fleming (UEA), Professor Daniel John Zizzo (Newcastle University)

What did your research aim to do?
Media companies are very concerned about piracy and encourage significant punishments for accessing, storing or distributing music, films etc. They estimate that it costs billions of dollars a year to the media industry. We wanted to find out why people pirate or stream media unlawfully. Is it the cost, the accessibility or something else?

How did you do it?
We carried out a review of all the existing literature followed by a survey, an experiment and a field experiment.

What are your key findings?
Our review clearly showed the importance of doing research to understand the causal determinants of unlawful file sharing behaviour; a result which is perhaps even truer for streaming.

Our empirical work has been one step towards filling the gap. We found that file sharing may replace some sales, but there is strong evidence that people who pirate more also purchase more media, and that low prices increase sales and reduce piracy. We found some evidence that stricter laws reduce file sharing, and people do behave ‘rationally’ in the lab in response to potential legal penalties but currently, in the UK people are primarily file-sharing based on how beneficial they judge it to be and ignore the risks. We find some evidence to support that, if people are aware of the effort of the artist, they are more reluctant to engage in unlawful file-sharing. We find strong evidence that people do what they believe it is socially appropriate to do: the more they feel unlawful behaviour is socially appropriate, the more they do it. Experimental behaviour is predictive of actual unlawful file-sharing, but streaming works differently, something we are looking into further.

Overall, media producers can emphasise the effort they put in and promote a social expectation that media should be legal, but they have to compete with the benefits of unlawful access in order to avoid criminalising their own customers.

What impact has your work had so far/what impact do you anticipate it will have?
We have had interest from industry and beyond. Several media organisations have reported on our findings. We expect our work to help inform businesses and policymakers in how to encourage legitimate business models without excessive criminalisation of the population, in what is a technologically and socially evolving digital landscape.

Challenges encountered/Lessons learned
We learned that it is difficult to measure unlawful behaviour at an individual level, and responded by triangulating from anonymous surveys, laboratory studies and a field study to compare results. We also learned, or rather are learning in our still ongoing work, that streaming is a very different beast from unlawful file sharing.

Are there additional/new research questions still to be answered in this area?
New technologies continue to suggest questions building on our work – we have looked at streaming and at downloading but recently people have been ‘ripping’ downloads from lawful streams (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-40519137). Grey areas will continue to develop with technology.

How has your association with CREATe helped to take things forward?
The network of researchers and group meetings have been incredibly helpful to make our work relevant, as has been central support in matching academic work to real world organisations.

For more information see the following papers: 

Fleming, P., Watson, S. J., Patouris, E., Bartholomew, K. J., & Zizzo, D. J. (2017). Why do people file share unlawfully? A systematic review, meta-analysis and panel study. Computers in Human BehaviorDOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2017.02.014

Watson, S. J., Zizzo, D. J., & Fleming, P. (2016). Risk, Benefit, and Moderators of the Affect Heuristic in a Widespread Unlawful Activity: Evidence from a Survey of Unlawful File-Sharing Behavior. Risk AnalysisDOI: 10.1111/risa.12689

Watson, S.J., Zizzo, D.J., and Fleming, P. (2015) Determinants of Unlawful File Sharing: A Scoping Review, PLoS ONE, 10(6) e0127921.DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0127921

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