Harvard Lawyers Don’t Think That Piracy is Theft, Research Finds

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An in-depth study among 50 Harvard lawyers shows that downloading and streaming pirated content is widely tolerated and even supported by some. It is certainly not seen as a form of theft by these legal experts. Based on these findings, the researchers call for a paradigm shift where entertainment providers focus more on convenience, accessibility and affordability.

harvard lawMost people know all too well that downloading and sharing pirated movies and TV shows is against the law. Nonetheless, millions do so on a daily basis.

These pirates are not all borderline criminals. They can be doctors, veterans, police officers, or even lawyers too.

In fact, many top lawyers don’t think that piracy is unethical and some even support it. This is also what Prof. Dariusz Jemielniak and Dr. Malgorzata Ciesielska reported in a recent paper.

To conduct this in-depth quantitative study, one of the researchers spent a year at Harvard, informally engaging with the International Masters of Law (LL.M.) cohorts. This program is highly competitive; it requires a law degree, top grades, and work experience as a lawyer.

The embedded researcher participated in the students’ social life on a daily basis, both offline and in an active online Facebook group. In this setting, informal but structured interviews were carried out.

How Harvard Lawyers View Piracy

The goal of the research was to find out how these legal experts view current copyright regulations and the acceptability of digital piracy. In addition, they were asked about their thoughts on the future of copyright.

This type of research approach is not easy to summarize in a graph or table. However, it allows the researchers to ask more detailed follow-up questions to expose finer nuances and beliefs.

The results were published in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology and offer unique insight into the liberal copyright and piracy views of these lawyers.

Piracy is Broadly Tolerated

The majority of the respondents refuted the notion that “piracy is theft,” as now-President Joe Biden once said. On the contrary, many lawyers are quite tolerant when it comes to file-sharing.

“Our study reveals that law professionals, with raised professional ethics standards and expectations toward lawabiding behavior, highly above average understanding of law, and higher than average socio-economic status, do not equate digital piracy with physical theft, and are generally very tolerant or even supportive of it.”

These findings apply to consumers who download or watch pirated content, not the people who operate piracy sites. But it’s intriguing nonetheless, especially when examining some of the detailed responses.

Lawyers Comment

Throughout the paper, the researchers draw several conclusions, supported by quotes from the interviews, emphasized in bolded italics below.

“There is the shared sense that digital goods differ from physical goods, and that this constitutes a basis for new societal norms to emerge: while they ‘would never do anything illegal elsewhere’ [Interview 36], pirating digital content is treated morally differently and morally acceptable.”

“Although it might be illegal, there is a widespread perception that it’s not theft and some have no issue discussing it in a professional setting: ‘I have spoken with my clients about the T.V. shows that I have downloaded and watched’ [Interview 3]”

Of the 50 lawyers who were interviewed, only three believed that downloading or streaming digital content from pirate sources is absolutely illegal and unacceptable. And even those three wouldn’t report their friends’ transgressions.

“If I were to call police when someone watches pirated movies, I wouldn’t have any friends. [Interview 33]”

Availability and Costs

The availability of legal content is an important factor in how these lawyers view piracy. When there’s no option to consume content legally, many consider piracy to be fair game, even for themselves.

“[I]f for any reason, there is a restriction. I think it’s fair for me to download illegally or use VPN to have access to the content. I don’t believe in geographical restrictions on the internet.” [Interview 16]

The same reasoning applies to the cost element. If something is seen as overpriced, respondents generally view piracy as a more acceptable option.

“Two-hundred dollars [for an academic textbook] is absolutely crazy. If there was a choice that someone sells it pirate, I would buy the pirate.” [Interview 41].

Interestingly, these views are not equal across all content categories. Downloading pirated software, especially if it’s used for commercial purposes, is seen as unacceptable by most lawyers.

The same applies to books, with the exception of academic and educational content. Aside from the cost, the respondents indicated that access to knowledge should be free and unrestrained. That argument weights stronger than the law, in this case.

A New Paradigm?

The full paper includes many more examples and context. The overall conclusion is that most of the Harvard lawyers don’t see piracy as something that’s by definition problematic.

According to the researchers, this could be a strong indication that it might be time for a new paradigm. Tougher laws are not likely to be successful so content creators and publishers should find ways to change their businesses.

Instead of fragmenting into entertainment silos, it would make more sense to ensure that the public at large can easily access content for a decent price.

“One of the major practical implications of our research is that it indicates that a social, cultural, and mental change in the perception of piracy has already happened,” the researchers write.

“The industries, which are best adapting to the needs and perceptions of the society, will win in the race to establish new, effective, and yet widely accepted and sustainable business models,” they add.


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