Neutralizations and Rationalizations of Digital Piracy: A Qualitative
Analysis of University Students
current study examined the use of neutralization techniques by
university students who shared copyrighted files through the user of
peer-to-peer file sharing programs. Qualitative interviews were
conducted with forty-four university students in an attempt to
determine whether neutralization techniques were employed by file
sharers. The results indicated that multiple neutralizations were
employed by a small number of participants. However, each participant
indicated support for one of six neutralization techniques.
Explanations of how these findings impact the movie and music
industry’s response to digital piracy are discussed, as is the need
for further research on neutralization theory and file sharing.
Neutralization theory, P2P files sharing, computer crime, intellectual
issue of digital piracy has become a topic of immense concern, such
that it has attracted the attention of both legislators and academics.
As a result there has been a steady growth in academic literature on
the topic over the last several years (Higgins, Wilson & Fell, 2005;
Higgins, Fell, & Wilson, 2006; Higgins & Wilson, 2006; Hohn, Muftic &
Wolf, 2006; Al-Rafee & Cronan, 2006; Hinduja, 2007). Defining digital
piracy has been difficult as the term “piracy” may invoke images of
those who steal for monetary gain. In reaching a definition, Hill
(2007) has defined digital piracy to include “the purchase of
counterfeit products at a discount to the price of the copyrighted
product, and illegal file sharing of copyright material over
peer-to-peer computer networks.” (p. 9). This definition removes the
financial gain aspect of digital file sharing in its attempts to
provide a simpler definition of digital piracy. However, while
attempts to define digital file sharing and digital piracy have become
more simplified, the topic is still one of immense complexity. Digital
file sharing, sometimes referred to as digital piracy and sometimes
referred to as peer-to-peer file sharing – occasionally abbreviated as
P2P file sharing – continues to intrigue both researchers and
practitioners in the fields of criminology, economics and computer
science. The reasons for this interest are varied, but it is likely
that such increased interest can be tied to the fact that the
technology has evolved rapidly creating conflicts between users and
traditional intellectual property laws. Additionally, there is the
fact that many individuals in the music and film industry have blamed
the technology for lagging sales of compact disks (CDs) and digital
video disks (DVDS) (Pomerantz, 2005).
commonsense perspective this issue of financial harm would seem to
make sense. If individuals are downloading and copying music and movie
files from P2P networks then they are more than likely not paying for
these materials. Or are they? There is considerable debate among
economic academics about the financial impact P2P file sharing has on
the music and film industry. Pomerantz (2005) reported that as much as
$21 billion could be lost on DVD sales and $12 billion could be lost
on CD sales each year because of P2P file sharing. These estimates of
loss are believed to be associated with the fact that at any given
time there are approximately 1 billion music and movie files available
online (Ouellet, 2007). However, some economic experts have countered
this argument claiming that P2P file sharing only minimally, if at
all, affects the purchase of DVDs and CDs (Oberholzer & Strumpf, 2005;
Rochelander & Le Guel, 2005).
music industry initially responded to file sharing through the use of
legal pressure against the software manufacturers who produced file
sharing software. However, more recently the music and movie
industries have resorted to the use of civil lawsuits against users,
focusing more on consumers than on software manufacturers (Rupley,
2004). The viability of these lawsuits has been questioned, as studies
have indicated that there has been very little, if any, decrease in
the use of P2P file sharing activities as a result of civil litigation
against users (Green & Sager, 2004). It is for these reasons that it
becomes important to gain a better understanding of what influences a
person’s decision to engage in digital piracy. Understanding why a
person engages in P2P file sharing may allow for the development of
better responses to the problem – responses that do not involve costly
research on demographic factors associated with P2P file sharing have
found that file sharers were most often male and of lower educational
levels (Rochelander & Le Guel, 2005). However, Hinduja (2008) found
that less than half of the individuals in his study who engaged in
digital piracy were male but that overwhelmingly the individuals were
of Caucasian descent. In terms of why individuals engage in software
piracy, whereby users download or copy commercial software without
paying for a license to use the software, Higgins (2007) has
successfully examined digital piracy in light of self-control theory
and rational choice theory. Hinduja (2007), also examining commercial
software piracy, has performed an initial study on the use of
neutralization techniques and found some evidence of the use of
neutralization techniques to minimize guilty. Each of these studies
has utilized quantitative methodology and as such the current study
seeks to add to the literature from a qualitative standpoint. First,
however, it is necessary to briefly discuss the evolution of
Gresham Sykes and David Matza released their theory on the use of
neutralization techniques to counter feelings of guilt associated with
delinquent behavior. Prior to the development of this theory, it was
a commonly held belief that juveniles adhered to a code of values and
beliefs that was distinct from those of the general population. Sykes
and Matza disagreed, claiming that juveniles as a whole normally
adhered to the same beliefs and norms as the larger population. It
was only when a juvenile engaged in certain delinquent acts that the
individual would move from a state of lawfulness to a state of
lawlessness (Sykes & Matza, 1957). Matza (1964) would later term this
process whereby an individual would move from law abider to law
breaker as “drifting.”
reaching the aforementioned conclusion, Sykes and Matza determined
that there were five techniques associated with neutralizing guilt
related to deviant behavior. The first technique was termed the
denial of responsibility. Individuals who applied this technique of
neutralization refused to accept responsibility for their actions.
This denial was believed to go far beyond an initial belief that the
individual’s behavior was the result of an accident, and extend into a
belief that factors beyond their control were responsible for their
behavior. For example, the environment in which one lives or one’s
family structure may have caused their behavior (Sykes & Matza, 1957).
second technique was termed the denial of injury, and related to a
belief that there was no injury or harm caused to the person who was
affected by the delinquent behavior. Further, if there was any harm
then the harm was negated by the fact that the victim could afford the
injury, and was therefore not an injury in the truest sense.
third technique of neutralization, the denial of victim, extended this
concept. Individuals who applied this technique accepted that there
was a victim to the crime, but believed that the injury was justified
because the victim was deserving of punishment or retaliation.
fourth technique of neutralization was termed the condemnation of the
condemners. Here, the individual justified their behavior on the
basis that those who were victimized were not real victims because
they were hypocrites, or that the victims would have engaged in the
same activities if they were provided the opportunity.
final technique of neutralization was termed the appeal to higher
loyalties. This technique of neutralization was applied when an
individual recognized that perhaps an act was inappropriate but
justified the behavior on the grounds that their immediate social
group needed their behavior at the time (Sykes & Matza, 1957).
Subsequent research projects conducted throughout the 1970s, 80s, and
90s, have resulted in the development of five additional techniques of
neutralization. Klockars (1974) proposed the metaphor of the ledger
technique, which was used when an individual argued that their
inappropriate behavior was at times acceptable because the person had
spent the majority of their time doing good deeds. In other words,
they developed a reserve of good deeds that overshadowed their one bad
deed. Coleman (1994) proposed three techniques of neutralization: the
denial of the necessity of the law, the claim that everybody else is
doing it, and the claim of entitlement. The denial of the necessity
of the law argued that the law was the result of the larger society’s
attempts to regulate behavior that had nothing to do with the greater
good of people. As a result the law was deemed inappropriate and not
worth obedience. The claim that everybody else is doing it was used
when individuals felt that there was so much disrespect for a law that
the general consensus became such that the law was nullified or deemed
to be unimportant. The claim of entitlement was used by individuals
who felt that they were entitled to engage in an activity because of
some consideration in their life (Coleman, 1994). Finally, Minor
(1981) proposed the defense of necessity, which argued that while the
behavior may be inappropriate it was also necessary in order to
prevent an even greater delinquent act from taking place.
years since the release of neutralization theory there have been
numerous researchers to apply the theory to a variety of delinquent
and criminal activities. Neutralization and rationalization theory
has been applied to deer poaching (Eliason & Dodder, 1999), auto
thieves (Copes, 2003), a self-professed hitman (Levi, 1981), pageant
mothers (Heltsley & Calhoun, 2002), the theft of nursing supplies and
medicine by nurses (Dabney, 1995), and abortion (Breenan, 1974).
Neutralization theory has even been applied to the act of copying
commercial software and/or music discs (Hinduja, 2007). While the
majority of these studies have selected to focus on the use of
neutralization techniques utilized by individuals who engage in
delinquent acts, there have been other studies to utilize the theory
in the study of victimology. For example, Agnew (1985) examined the
use of neutralization techniques to impact a crime victim’s
perceptions or feelings of victimization.
(2003) has noted that for techniques of neutralization and
rationalization to be applicable, it is first necessary for the
individual to believe that there is something wrong with their
behavior. After all, if there is no guilt to neutralize then it
stands to reason that there is no need for neutralization techniques.
Research by Dodder and Hughes (1993) supported this statement, as the
researchers found that university students who felt drinking was wrong
were more likely to employ neutralization techniques than were
students who felt that drinking was an acceptable activity. A second
consideration for neutralization theory concerns the temporal facts of
delinquent activity. More specifically the question of whether or not
the individual applies these neutralization techniques before or after
their delinquent acts have been completed? If the techniques are used
after the commission of what is deemed a delinquent activity, then the
technique is referred to as a rationalization technique (Conklin,
in examining P2P file sharing activity this distinction may become
minimally important. Whether file sharers negate their guilt before
the activity or after the activity matters little if the individual is
going to continue to engage in the sharing of copyrighted materials.
It is entirely possible that the individual may employ the
neutralization techniques before, during and after they engage in P2P
file sharing. This fact came to the attention of one of the authors
after a classroom discussion with an undergraduate student. The
student indicated that they knew file sharing was in fact illegal and
that they understood why it was illegal, yet they still indicated they
were intent on sharing files via peer-to-peer networks.
the current study were collected through interviews conducted with 44
university students who were self-confessed file sharers.
Participants were students in criminal justice or criminology courses
from three separate mid-size southern universities, with the
universities being selected on the basis of their previous
participation in a previous research project involving attitudes of
file sharers (Moore & McMullan, 2004). Individuals were selected for
inclusion in the study on the basis of voluntary participation. The
researchers indicated during the earlier research project that a
second study involving interviews would be conducted at a later time
and 45 individuals initially agreed on condition of confidentiality to
take part in the interviews. However, prior to the completion of the
study one individual withdrew their participation, citing personal
reasons for their refusal to take part. The authors chose to utilize
college students for a multitude of reasons. It is the belief of
these authors that college students are the proper target group for
research on digital piracy and P2P file sharing because these are the
individuals that: 1) have most access to computers, 2) are more likely
to have moderate to advanced computer skills, and 3) are more likely
to engage in file sharing of music and movies (Moore & McMullan, 2004;
Higgins, 2007; Hinduja, 2007).
Interviews were conducted in person with participants at each
student’s university. The researchers utilized a semi-structured
interview format because of the very nature of the interview.
Participants were being questioned about illegal activity in an
attempt to determine whether neutralization techniques were present
during their file sharing activity. The semi structured format
allowed the researchers the opportunity to establish contact with
participants and collect some basic data relating to demographics and
frequency of file sharing activities. Yet the interview format did
not lead respondents’ answers in a direction that supported any of the
researchers’ expected results.
interviews ranged in length from 30 minutes to 1 hour and 22 minutes.
During the course of the interviews participants were asked a variety
of questions relating to whether file sharing was illegal, how often
they utilized file sharing software, what types of files were most
commonly shared, and whether the individual would ever engage in the
shoplifting of music or movies from a retail establishment.
Participants were then provided an opportunity to explain why they
continued to share files after discovering that the activity was
Participants ranged in age from 18 to 29 (M = 21, SD = 2.07), with 14
of the individuals being female and 30 of the individuals being male.
Ninety-six percent of participants (n = 42) indicated that they would
never engage in the physical shoplifting of music CDs or movies and
100% (n = 44) of participants indicated that they were aware of the
illegal nature of file sharing. In examining the types of files most
commonly shared, participants overwhelmingly indicated that music was
the most shared file type (91%, n = 40). Seven percent of
participants (n = 3) indicated that they preferred to download movies
with their file sharing programs. The remaining individual (2%, n =
1) indicated that he used file sharing programs to mostly share
software programs. Of those participating in the study, 86% (n = 38)
indicated that they used file sharing programs on an almost daily
basis. Nine percent (n = 4) indicated that they used the file sharing
programs on a regular basis, and the remaining 5% (n =2) indicated
that they rarely used the software. These results concerning
frequency of P2P use must be interpreted with caution, however, as the
participants were volunteers. The very fact that the individuals
volunteered to take part in the study is indicative of the fact that
they are interested in the activity and will likely engage in the
activity on a more regular basis than perhaps the general population.
examining the results, participants did provide evidence of the use of
six of the ten techniques of neutralization. The techniques most
commonly employed by participants in the study were: denial of victim,
denial of injury, and everyone else is doing it. While the majority
of respondents indicated support or use of multiple neutralization
techniques, each indicated one of the above six techniques as their
primary “justification” for why they continued to engage in file
sharing despite the fact that 100% (n = 44) knew that the activity was
illegal and that the music industry was using civil lawsuits against
file sharers. What follows is a brief discussion relating to how each
of the three most commonly encountered techniques of neutralization
Denial of Injury
of injury appeared to be the most commonly encountered technique of
neutralization with 57% (n = 25) of participants indicating the
primary use of this technique. Among participants who showed evidence
of this technique the common belief was that no musicians were harmed
by their file sharing activities. In fact some participants argued
that file sharing not only did not harm musicians but that such
activities helped musicians. The argument was that by file sharing a
musician’s work the musician would become more popular and would
ultimately earn more money. As one respondent indicated:
Artists will benefit from file sharing because my friends and I
download music from the file sharing program and then we go out and
purchase the CD.
listen to artists’ songs off of the file sharing program and then I
get more excited about seeing them perform live. I read somewhere
that musicians make their money off concerts, so I think file sharing
is actually helping the artists.
reading the above responses it would appear as though individuals in
the current study more or less used P2P file sharing to help select
which CDs or DVDs to purchase. However, the reality is that despite
statements such as those provided above, very few of the participants
actually purchased a significant number of compact disks or movies. In
fact, several of the individuals could not recall the last time they
purchased a CD or DVD at a retail store. Some of the individuals who
associated with denial of injury claimed that P2P file sharing
actually helped lesser known artists to a greater degree, and better
known artists to a lesser degree, with selling concert tickets. One
respondent indicated that they had heard ticket sales was where an
artist made the bulk of their living and as such the artists were not
really seriously harmed by P2P file sharing. This is a serious
consideration as Madden (2004) has put forth the argument that
thoughts such as these explain why some artists have accepted file
sharing. These individuals are believed to accept that file sharing is
going to occur and as such they are trying to get more concert tickets
sold and thereby increase earnings. However, even if this is the case
there is still the consideration that someone in the music industry is
likely losing income (i.e. the songwriter, music studio employee,
etc). A thought that none of the respondents appeared to have
Denial of Victim
denial of victim technique tied for the second most commonly
associated technique of neutralization with 16% (n = 7) of
participants providing evidence of primary support for this
technique. This was of little surprise to the researchers as this
technique is closely related to the denial of injury. Individuals who
indicated support for this neutralization technique felt that there
was no victim associated with their activities because the files that
they shared were from television series and musical artists who were
not going to sell their media anyway. As respondents indicated:
Recording artists are not victimized by this type of activity. I only
download music CDs from artists who are no longer a part of the top
100. These individuals aren’t selling CDs anymore, so they are not
harmed when I download their music.
file sharing programs to download my favorite television programs. If
I had a VCR at the house then I could have taped the episodes. I
really don’t see how there is any difference between my taping the
show and watching it whenever I want, or my downloading it and
watching it on my computer. I might could understand if I was sharing
the arguments espoused in the second respondent's answer is
interesting, more than a cursory discussion is beyond the scope of the
current work. It should, however, be noted that this belief is perhaps
likely to become even more prevalent with the recent decisions of
television studios to post their more popular television programs on
the Internet for live viewing at the leisure of fans. This belief is
also consistent with at least one company’s decision to post
television series online for viewing at consumers’ convenience (Hulu,
Everyone Else is Doing It
percent of participants (n = 7) indicated primary support for the
technique of neutralization referred to as “everyone else is doing
it.” These results actually surprised one of the study’s authors as
they expected more individuals to associate with this belief. The
individuals who supported this belief were actually evenly balanced
between two beliefs, both of which lend initial support for further
research. First there was a belief that all of their friends were
downloading so it was more acceptable to download music and movie
files. Second there was a belief that because everyone is doing it
then there is less chance of getting caught. As respondents indicated:
should I worry about sharing music on the Internet? After all, there
are so many people online sharing songs that I sometimes have trouble
downloading my one or two songs that I am looking for. I sometimes
wish that there were fewer people online.
were almost two million individuals online last night sharing files.
I never allow more than 20 or 30 songs to be listed in my shared
folder. Think about it, if the recording industry was going to go
after someone then who would they go for? Me, the guy with the 20
songs or the guy with 2000 songs! I read they get paid by the song,
so I would hardly be worth their time.
statement above lends support for the arguments concerning control
theory and deterrence theory as predictors of understanding and
controlling the P2P file sharing phenomenon (Higgins, Wilson & Fell,
2005; Higgins, 2007). However, only a small percentage of respondents
in the current study associated with these beliefs, meaning additional
studies on the issues of control theory and deterrence theory are
warranted. Yet another individual felt that because “everyone does it”
the music and movie industry would soon be forced to just accept that
it is going to happen and move on to harassing some other group
besides file sharers. A criminally optimistic outlook that in the
opinion of one of the current authors is not likely to happen for some
time, if ever.
Discussion and Conclusion
participants in the current study exhibited at least one technique of
neutralization in justifying their file sharing activities. Several
participants indicated more than one technique of neutralization,
which is consistent with what other researchers have found in similar
studies involving different criminal activities (see Hollinger, 1991
and Copes, 2003). Six of the ten neutralizations were found to be
primary neutralization techniques employed by participants in the
current study, with the denial or injury being the most commonly
encountered technique and denial of victim and entitlement being the
next most commonly encountered techniques.
file sharers most closely associate with the denial of injury
technique? There are a couple of possible explanations. The first
involves the very anonymity of the Internet. When individuals are on
the Internet there is a perceived sense of freedom in regards to
behavior and expression (Suler, 2004; Rowland, 2003; Bell, 2001;
Hinduja, 2007). Because there is no physical interaction between the
file sharer and the musician, the individual may more easily argue
that there is no injury because the only image they have of the
musician or the actor is one in which they are surrounded by financial
success. Seeing the individual in this environment may reinforce the
file sharer’s belief that he or she has not harmed the person with
their file sharing activities.
explanation involves the misguided belief that individuals are using
the music for a greater purpose – a purpose that will ultimately
benefit the musician. Participants indicated that sharing files was a
method of introducing the artist to consumers. In fact, several
participants indicated that they used P2P networks to screen potential
artists for future purchase. The question is whether these
individuals are actually out purchasing more CDs or DVDs as a result
of their activity? In the current study, only one (1) of the
individuals who made this argument actually indicated that they
purchased more CDs since they began using file sharing programs. The
majority indicated that they have either purchased very few CDs or
they have a listing of CDs that they are going to purchase once they
are out of college and have more money. Measuring exact CD sales that
result from use of P2P can be difficult considering that any measures
related to the effects on CD sales have been widely disputed in recent
years. After all, the recording industry association has indicated
that P2P file sharing has resulted in a dramatic decrease in record
sales, while independent researchers have found that P2P software has
little or no impact on CD sales (Oberholzer & Strumpf 2005).
Participants also supported the idea that they were using file sharing
programs in an attempt to determine which artists they will pay to see
perform live in concert. One participant indicated that they had read
somewhere that musicians make the majority of their money off of tours
and not off of CD sales. This individual felt that their file sharing
wasn’t wrong because their downloading of certain songs had led them
to purchase concert tickets for bands that they normally would not
have even considered. Therefore, in their mind they felt file sharing
helped these small bands. It should be noted that there is some
support for this argument among musicians, with some smaller musical
groups indicating possible support for P2P file sharing (Madden,
problem with this view is that the people behind the musical talent
likely continue to suffer from the financial losses associated with
file sharing. An explanation of this view is related to an earlier
explanation, being that the songwriter is not seen as often as the
musician. Likewise, file sharers who prefer to download movies are
not accepting of the idea that the activity causes financial harm to
the screenwriters and the individuals who work behind the scenes. One
participant in this study even went so far as to accept that these
individuals may be harmed, yet condemned the Hollywood industry for
trying to make him feel guilty when the music industry executives were
not doing anything to financially help these people.
the primary concerns related to file sharing programs is whether or
not the government can ever truly regulate both the availability and
the use of file sharing programs. Obviously, it is illegal to share
files. The government has made this clear through the use of numerous
public lawsuits involving college students as well as nonstudents;
ultimately providing evidence that individual users may be held
responsible for file sharing activities (Banerjee, 2004). However,
attempts to regulate the release of the file sharing programs
themselves have been met with limited success, and the future of such
arguments may now rest now rest in the hands of the Supreme Court.
Possible Implications of Results
results of this research provide initial support that: 1) individuals
who engage in the sharing of copyrighted materials via P2P networks
likely neutralize any guilt associated with engaging in illegal
activities, and 2) these individuals have little or no intention of
stopping their criminal behavior. The fact that there appears to be
little or no intent to stop sharing copyrighted materials could mean
trouble for the music and movie industry. The question of how to stop
file sharing remains a valid question and one that has no easy answer.
After all, if individuals know that their activities are illegal yet
continue to rationalize their behavior then the question becomes
whether or not lawsuits will ever actually work. Higgins et al (2005)
has argued quite convincingly that deterrence theory might be the
solution to reducing file sharing, finding that certainty of
punishment appeared to be a deterrent to downloading copyrighted
software. This makes even greater sense to these authors as the
individuals who utilize P2P file sharing software may be completely
law-abiding citizens on every level except for when it comes to
downloading music and movies from P2P networks. As such, it stands to
reason that these relatively law-abiding citizens may consider no
longer downloading or utilizing P2P networks if they were more certain
of the likelihood of their being caught and charged with a criminal or
civil offense. However, in the current study there was some evidence
that individuals may believe that their chances of getting caught are
very slim because there are so many individuals engaged in file
Limitations and Need for Future Research
current study provided initial evidence that techniques of
neutralization are being used by file sharers to alleviate guilt
associated with their actions. Further research with a larger sample
size would allow for a continued understanding of the extent to which
file sharers employ these techniques in their day-to-day file sharing
activities. Copes (2003) has pointed out that several studies have
used sample sizes between 20 and 50 when conducting interviews related
to neutralization techniques. However, while smaller sample sizes are
viewed as adequate when dealing with the collection of qualitative
data, there is also a need for more qualitative and quantitative
analysis of data. Hinduja (2007) found in his initial examination of
neutralization techniques that there was some support for the
utilization of the techniques of neutralization among digital pirates.
However, even Hinduja acknowledged that additional studies were
necessary because of the fact that the data was collected prior to the
utilization of lawsuits. Additionally, future studies should extend
beyond the realm of university students. University students, because
of their often perceived financial difficulties, may be more inclined
to neutralize their behavior because of a belief that they cannot
afford to actually purchase the materials. While none of the
participants in the current study directly addressed this sense of
necessity, there was a small percentage (7%, n = 3) who indirectly
insinuated that financial situation could play a role in their file
sharing activities. Collecting data from a sample of working, non
college students would continue to allow for a better understanding of
how neutralization techniques may be used by file sharers.
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