Illegal Downloading Is OK, College Kids Say

College students don't see what's wrong with illegally downloading music. Credit:
College students don't see what's wrong with illegally downloading music. (Image credit:

The music industry is hurting, and a new psychology study may have identified the root cause of its pain. Illegal music downloading, researchers found, does not violate young peoples' moral instincts.

Most college students believe it is wrong to shoplift CDs, the study found. The influence of family and friends, fear of getting caught, an inherent obligation to follow the law as well as fundamental moral aversion all work together to prevent the physical theft of music.

Not so with illegal downloading. Most of the 200 students who participated in the University of Nebraska psychology study, which appears in the new issue of the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, did not express those same influences in regard to digital music piracy. In short, they didn't perceive illegal downloading as stealing.

"The results suggest that students perceive shoplifting and digital piracy differently, despite the fact that they are both forms of theft," Twila Wingrove, the study's lead author, said in a press release.

One recent estimate by the Institute for Policy Innovation says global music piracy creates $12.5 billion in economic losses each year, and has destroyed 71,060 jobs in the U.S. But the very nature of music piracy is likely the largest obstacle to curbing it, the authors say. There is no risk of physical harm to a victim and no physical object as a target — making it easier to deduce that digital music theft is harming no one at all. Also, there is widespread social support for the behavior within the Internet community and on college campuses.

Vicky Weisz, co-author of the study, agreed: "We have much to learn about the rapidly changing digital world and the views of younger generations about the legitimacy of the constraints on that world."

The views of the Internet-savvy generation may change as more and more online content surrounds itself with paywalls, the researchers believe. "As more industries begin to restrict content and to streamline the purchase of content, perhaps these attitudes will shift and people will have lower expectations of entitlement," Wingrove said.

"But that is a process that will likely happen very slowly," she added.

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover

Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.