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Music piracy: ethical perspectives

Steven Bonner (University College Dublin, Ireland)
Eleanor O'Higgins (University College Dublin, Ireland and London School of Economics, London, UK)

Management Decision

ISSN: 0025-1747

Article publication date: 19 October 2010




This paper aims to examine the issue of illegal downloading of music under an ethical lens.


The theoretical framework observed was one which included three independent variables: individual, situational and experimental elements. The dependent variable of the study was legal vs illegal downloading of music. A 20‐item questionnaire was completed by 84 respondents. The final four questions in the study were guilt‐inducing questions (which the respondent was informed of in compliance with ethical primary research); the remainder of the questions were neutral in nature.


The paper finds that the respondents illegally download despite viewing the act as immoral. Respondents choose to morally disengage from the non‐ethical nature of the act in an attempt to avoid feeling guilty about illegal downloading and also to avoid any blame being attributed to them personally. Many respondents feel the act of illegal downloading is simply today's reality and that there is nothing wrong or immoral about illegal downloading. Those who illegally download were less likely to attack the activity for being wrong. Active music fans were more likely to engage in illegal downloading than passive ones. Being a student versus being gainfully employed did not affect downloading behaviour.

Research limitations/implications

A limitation of the study was the difficulty in getting people to disclose the truth about their own ethical violations. A related limitation was the difficulty in obtaining respondents, since participation in such a study meant revealing their music consumption behaviour. However, in the end, social networking proved to be a successful way of recruiting participants.

Practical implications

The results cast light on the obstacles managers in the music business face in eliminating music piracy.

Social implications

The results show the reasons for the difficulties in eliminating this widespread crime, because of the ethical ambiguity involved.


The study has the effect of explaining music piracy very clearly through the application of ethical/psychological theory. This has not been done before.



Bonner, S. and O'Higgins, E. (2010), "Music piracy: ethical perspectives", Management Decision, Vol. 48 No. 9, pp. 1341-1354.



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Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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