Study Maps the Emerging Ethics of File Sharing and Copyright Enforcement

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One of the most comprehensive studies into media sharing and consumption habits in the United States and Germany reveals that nearly half of the populations have copied, shared or downloaded music, movies, and TV shows. Sharing occurs both on- and offline, but the latter is seen as reasonable by most people. The report does, however, reveal that online file-sharers consume more music than their non-file-sharing counterparts.

Today the American Assembly, a non-partisan public policy forum affiliated with Columbia University, published its long-awaited Copy Culture report.

The study is based on thousands of telephone interviews conducted in the United States and Germany and provides a unique insight into copying habits in the two countries.

“The study suggests that most people in the US and Germany recognize the constitutive dilemma of copyright as a set of tradeoffs between rightsholders and the public. And it provides a snapshot of where ‘most’ people are in trying to reconcile these tradeoffs with the digital age,” author Joe Karaganis told TorrentFreak.

“Not surprisingly, it’s a conflicted picture,” he adds.

One of the main conclusions of the report is that sharing and downloading are part of modern culture. Nearly half of the U.S. and German populations have copied, shared or downloaded music, movies, and TV shows.

This “copy culture” is most prevalent among people between the age of 18 and 29, with around 70% for both countries.


The data further shows that most of this copying is casual. Only 3% of the U.S. respondents say they got most of their media collection through copying, and in Germany the figure is even lower at 2%. For simplicity’s sake, the results below are limited to the U.S. sample.

When people are asked about their attitudes toward copying, it appears that most seek a moral balance between “sharing” and “piracy.” Offline swapping with friends and family is seen as reasonable by the majority of the population, but online file-sharing is not.

Among those who own music in the U.S., 80% believe it is reasonable to share it with family members and 60% have no objection to sharing with friends. However, this social acceptance quickly drops for public sharing, with only 15% saying it’s reasonable to upload files to public websites.

Overall we see that compared to older generations, people under 30 believe that copying is more reasonable.


The report also zooms in on online file-sharing habits and shows that across the whole population, 13% of all people with an Internet connection use P2P-services. Only 3% say they belong to a private P2P community and 2% of all Internet users say they have uploaded or seeded files.

Again, we see that sharing is most common among people under 30, where 20% use P2P-services.

As was revealed in a preview publication, the survey found that the group of self-confessed P2P file-sharers have larger music collections compared to the rest. Interestingly, the data also shows that these file-sharers buy more music legally than their non-sharing peers, about 30% more.

With the six-strikes anti-piracy system coming up it’s interesting to see the general public’s views on punishments for file-sharers, a topic the respondents were also questioned on.

The survey results show that more than half of the population (51%) support warnings. Support drops to 28% when users’ connections are throttled, and to 16% when people are at risk of being disconnected as can happen under the French system.


Another topic high on the anti-piracy agenda is censorship, something the public is also divided on. The results show that most people are supportive of copyright enforcement in general, but not when it compromises free speech or privacy.

In the U.S. more than half the population supports (61%) piracy filters on services such as Dropbox and Facebook, but only a small minority are in favor of active monitoring of Internet connections (26%).


Lastly, the data shows that a small subgroup of the population take measures to hide their IP-addresses online.

In part, this is a reaction to increasing copyright enforcement initiatives. In the U.S., 4% of Internet users use anonymizing services such as VPNs, and this percentage increases to 16% among those who share files online.

The above is just a summary of the findings. The full report is available on the American Assembly website.

Disclosure: TorrentFreak staff contributed to the Copy Culture report.


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