Academic Director, YouGov

The UK Government recently proposed to increase the maximum penalty for online piracy to ten years, saying the law had fallen behind the digital revolution.

Currently, the maximum sentence for online offences such as creating or distributing copies of film and music is two years imprisonment, compared with ten years for physical acts of copyright infringement.

Harsher punishments would be mostly aimed at distributors rather than small-time down-loaders. But as the Intellectual Property Office sought to emphasise, “online offences should be seen as no less serious than their physical counterparts”.

According to recent polling, however, much of the British public disagree.

YouGov recently asked a nationally representative sample of British adults how they thought the act of getting free access to ‘pay-for’ entertainment online compared with physically stealing an item, say a DVD or CD, from a shop.

The research was conducted in collaboration with William Warr, currently a Masters student in Public Policy at the Cambridge POLIS Department, where YouGov supports the academic study of public opinion through the YouGov-Cambridge Programme. (About)

Nearly half of voters (48%) say either ‘there is nothing wrong’ with getting free access to ‘pay-for’ content (17%), or it's ‘not as bad’ as physically stealing a similar item (31%).

As figures show below, younger respondents are more likely than their elders to defend this kind of activity while, interestingly, so are male respondents, compared with women.


See results

To some extent, results merely point towards a universal reality of modern networked society, namely that people often behave online in ways they would not in person –  for better and worse.

Beyond the disinhibiting effects of online anonymity, however, these figures may also reflect another challenge for the entertainment industry, which cannot be met by legislation.

As studies for the British Psychological Society suggest, established theories on how people use ‘neutralisation techniques’ to self-explain their own criminal behaviour also have relevance to the piracy debate. Such techniques include denial of responsibility, denial of injury or victim, condemning the condemners and appeal to other loyalties.

Analysis further contends the most common such technique used by pirates was denial of injury, and the idea that little harm was caused by their behaviour, or that it actually helped artists.

Much of the discussion on deterring online piracy has focused on the balance between legislation and market-based solutions, with some calling for heavier punishments while others say the only real solution is to fight free with free, or at least partly free, via streaming service models like Spotify.

An equally important factor, however, may lie in finding ways to reshape perceptions of a victimless crime, and building awareness to counter the denial of doubtless injury – to writers, performers, labels, studios and publishers, among others.

See results

Methodology: Fieldwork was conducted online between 14-15 June, 2015, with a total sample of 1618 British adults. The data have been weighted and results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.

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