Anti Piracy Laws and Lawsuits Fail to Change Social Norms

New laws designed to thwart illicit file-sharing have been drafted by governments all over the world recently. At the same time the entertainment industries have claimed victories against individual file-sharers and operators of BitTorrent sites. Interestingly, these developments haven't changed social norms towards piracy which makes it hard to maintain compliance.

In the first months of 2009, the RIAA won two major cases against file-sharers and were awarded damages worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Another success for the music (and movie) studios came in April when the people behind The Pirate Bay were sentenced to one year in jail and ordered to pay hefty fines.

However, those who thought that these landmark cases would change public opinion towards file-sharing are wrong. In fact, not even the draconian anti-piracy legislation that went into effect in Sweden this spring could change social norms towards downloading movies and music without the permission of copyright holders.

These findings are the result of the Cyber Norms sociological research project carried out by Swedish researchers. They conducted survey interviews among 1,000 people between the ages of 15 and 25 to measure the strength of the social norms towards illegal file sharing. The aim was to find out whether the newly implemented anti-piracy legislation (IPRED) had been successful in reducing the gap between legal and social standards.

The findings of the surveys show that despite stronger anti-piracy legislation, the attitudes of young Swedes towards piracy haven’t changed.

“Despite the intensive efforts of the government during the six-month performance period, social support for copyright law in relation to file sharing is still at a record low. Young people in the survey do not feel any social pressure to refrain from interchange, whether from adults or peers,” researcher Måns Svensson comments.

Interestingly, the new law does seem to have an effect on the file-sharing habits of the younger Swedes. The percentage of people who say they don’t download any files illegally has increased from 22 percent in February to 39 percent in September. However, as the norms do not reflect the letter of the law it will be hard to maintain compliance, which could result in an increase in piracy in the months to come if people feel less threatened by possible punishments.

“In cases where the law is not supported by the social norms, it makes it extremely difficult to maintain compliance. Humans tend to follow social pressure rather than the letter of the law. With regard to intellectual property and copyright provisions, the Internet and file sharing technologies have created new conditions. In a short time, the social norms have developed in a direction that gives very little support of the law,” Svensson explained.

The study emphasizes that the law does not reflect what the general public considers to be legal, fair use, or even moral. Most people don’t feel that they’re doing anything wrong when they download an MP3 or share a movie, often because the legal alternatives are hard to find, full of DRM or simply overpriced.

So, as long as the entertainment industries fail to innovate and offer some real competition to piracy, the social norms wont change.

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