Righting Our Wrongs in Digital Downloading

The Mutual Influence of Legal Consequences and Social Norms on Willingness to Engage in Moral Regulation

Dr. Dikla Perez, The Graduate School of Business Administration, Bar-Ilan University;

Dr. Ayelet Gneezy, Rady School of Management, University of California San Diego;

Prof. Yael Steinhart, Coller School of Management, Tel Aviv University;

Shirly Bluvstein, Leonard N. Stern School of Business, New York University;


Approximately 40% of digital content worldwide is downloaded illegally using the cyber space. Such illegal downloading not only threatens firms’ motivation to invest in innovative digital content, but also costs the digital content industry over $4.6 billion per annum (IDC; Business Software Alliance 2015, International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI)( http://www.ifpi.org, Chien, Hsin & Lee, 2005). Of importance, these illegal actions have penetrated the social and legal aspects of individuals and firms. The sheer volume of piracy in cyberspace (which involves stealing intangibles such as software, movies, or games) suggests that such behaviors have become an accepted norm. Interestingly, these normative beliefs might be uniquely relevant to cyberspace, as outside of the cyberspace, accessing the property of others and using someone else’s assets is a non-accepted norm. Therefore, a comprehensive investigation of piracy in the cyber scape also requires attention to the normative beliefs that affect cyber pirates’ behaviour in cyberspace.

This research addresses the popularity of this illegal and unethical behavior in the cyber space and examines the conditions under which people decide to “right their wrongs” by agreeing to offer monetary compensation to content producers after engaging in illegal digital downloading. Specifically, we aim to examine whether (a) perceived social norms, (b) legal consequences, and (c) the interaction between them affect individuals’ moral perceptions regarding illegal digital downloading and their consequent tendency to engage in moral regulation after downloading content illegally. Our experiments rely on an innovative paradigm for evaluating moral-regulation behavior, namely, offering individuals an opportunity to financially compensate (or express intentions to compensate) the party they have wronged.

Results of two preliminary studies suggest that participants are willing to retroactively pay for content that they previously downloaded illegally and that this tendency is affected by their perceptions of the social norms and legal consequences associated with illegal downloading, in addition to the perceived morality of such behavior. In the first study participants shared an actual incident in which they had downloaded content illegally (n=150, 46.8% males); 61.3% (n = 92) reported that they had downloaded a movie from a torrent site (e.g., Torrentz, Extratorrent or Kickasstorrent). Of the participants who had illegally downloaded a movie, 43% reported that they had done so within the last year. Moreover, 82.3% of participants reported that half or more of their friends and family members downloaded movies through torrent sites, and think that it is OK to do so. These findings suggest that participants perceived illegal digital downloads as being highly socially acceptable. Furthermore, 83.4% reported that they did not perceive any legal consequences to this act. Next, we measured participants’ tendency to engage in moral regulation by offering them the opportunity to pay money to the original producer of the content they had reported downloading. Results show that 79% of participants agreed to hypothetically pay the producer some amount of money.

In the second study we manipulated participants’ perceptions of the social norms and legal consequences associated with illegal downloads. We randomly assigned participants (n=166, 35.5% males) to four experimental conditions and measured their tendency to engage in moral regulation after hypothetically engaging in illegal digital downloading. We found that the perceived social acceptability of illegal downloads had a negative effect on tendency to engage in moral regulation; this effect was moderated by the perceived extent of legal consequences. Specifically, the effect was significant for the mild-legal-consequences condition (95% CI: -1.878 to -.274) and non-significant for the severe-legal-consequences condition (95% CI: -.829 to .775). Finally, we found that, in the mild-legal-consequences condition, moral perceptions of illegal digital downloading mediated the effect of social norms on tendency to engage in moral regulation (95% CI: -.679 to -.006); no such mediation effect was observed in the severe-legal-consequences condition (95% CI: -.093 to .476).

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