To people in the justice system and in the music industry; stealing is stealing. To college students; pirating music is different from shoplifting and is less serious, according to a recent study.

The study, done by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, found that while they considered shoplifting illegal and immoral, they did not feel that way about downloading music illegally. This, the researchers say, underscores the problems law enforcement agencies have had in trying to convince people to avoid this kind of theft.  

Two hundred undergraduates were asked to react to a fellow student either shoplifting a CD or illegally downloading one. Overall, students expressed various reasons, such as morality, influence from family and friends, fear of getting caught, as to why they would follow the law and not steal the physical CD. Whereas with the downloading music, fewer students expressed the same kinds of emotions.

We examined theoretical explanations for law-abiding behavior that have been traditionally used to account for compliance, and found weaker support for these explanations when it comes to digital piracy, said Twila Wingrove, who is now a psychology professor at Appalachian State University, the study's lead author. The results suggest that students perceive shoplifting and digital piracy differently, despite the fact that they are both forms of theft.

The study was done in the mid 2000s when there was a wave of lawsuits and litigation from the music industry against music pirates. The overwhelming reason students said they would not pirate music online is because of the harsh penalties involved if they were caught. Yet even so, most students thought they wouldn't get caught and didn't think the penalties would be worse than stealing from a store.

As a reference point, some people convicted of pirating music illegaly have been known to pay fines of up to $1.92 million. Shoplifting fines depend on the area; but can be punishable of up to 5-10 years in prison. However, for first time offenders, shoplifting is typically a small fine.

Since there is no physical harm to a victim and no physical object as a target, the researchers say the students find it easier to break the law by downloading illegally. Furthermore, they said the students have grown up in an era where much of the content they have found online is free, and the students believe it should be free.

We studied college students who grew up with internet access at a time when the internet was considered an access point for free information and media and when there were no convenient, popular methods to pay for online content. 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, but that is a process that will likely happen very slowly, Wingrove said.

This belief, she said, could spill over and hurt other industries such as motion pictures, video games and online news outlets.

The study will appear in the next issue of Psychology, Crime and Law.