Academic journal article Western Criminology Review

Self-Control and Ethical Beliefs on the Social Learning of Intellectual Property Theft*

Academic journal article Western Criminology Review

Self-Control and Ethical Beliefs on the Social Learning of Intellectual Property Theft*

Article excerpt

Abstract. Social learning theory has been identified as a strong predictor of various computer-related crimes, especially intellectual property theft (Higgins and Makin 2004; Hinduja 2006; Rogers 2001; Skinner and Fream 1997). Undoubtedly, the relationship is more complex, as other factors appear to affect one's proclivity to be influenced by the social learning components. The current study examined survey response data from over two thousand university students to clarify potential interactive effects that measures of an individual's self-control and ethical beliefs might have on the relationship between social learning and music piracy. The results indicated that self-control conditioned the effect that differential association and differential reinforcement had on levels of music piracy. In addition, ethical beliefs in piracy laws conditioned the effect that differential reinforcement and imitation had on levels of music piracy.

Keywords: piracy; intellectual property theft; crime; copyright; social learning; self-control; ethics; morality


The tenets of Akers' (1977) social learning theory have been identified throughout the literature as important explanations for numerous types of deviant behavior. Recent research in the realm of intellectual property (IP) theft has produced similar results as the components of learning theory have been found to significantly predict participation in software piracy (Higgins and Makin 2004; Rogers 2001; Skinner and Fream 1997) and music piracy (Hinduja 2006).

The use of social learning theory as a framework for understanding participation in IP theft is a logical one. In order to commit such acts, one must obtain the necessary techniques, which usually requires learning from others some type of computer-related skill (Skinner and Fream 1997), as well as the motives, drives, and rationalizations to induce commission. Furthermore, specific forms of IP theft, such as software piracy and music piracy, allow the offender to receive tangible rewards (e.g., free software or songs) quickly and at minimal risk, further reinforcing that behavior (Higgins and Makin 2004; Hinduja 2003; Hinduja 2006). Imitation of other participants in IP theft that one sees or meets in cyberspace can take place as the actions of more experienced users are copied by those new to the scene through specific prescribed instruction or through emulation of methods to acquire or exchange unauthorized digital music files. Finally, definitions that characterize the activity as positive, beneficial, and commonly-accepted are very present in the textual interaction among members in online environments where music piracy occurs, and serve to strengthen or at least sustain participation.

Findings from research studies have spawned various policy implementations to change individual attitudes toward IP theft, and to deter individuals from continuing to engage in such acts. For example, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) designed and implemented formal strategies involving educational components to raise individual awareness about the negative effects of music piracy (e.g., public awareness campaigns) and litigation components to forestall participation (Associated Press 2005; 2004; IFPI 2002; IFPI 2005; 2005). Although such strategies may reduce IP theft to a certain extent, critics argue that such strategies are "insufficient to gain widespread public compliance with the law" (Tyler 1996:224). While numerous possibilities exist as to why this might be the case, one potential reason is that stable traits and beliefs of individuals affect their proclivity to be influenced by the social learning components that guide these suggested policies.

Self-control and beliefs regarding the law are two factors that may play a conditioning role. Prior research has found that more stable characteristics of individuals interact with other social elements to produce differential effects on criminal behavior (Evans, Cullen, Burton, Dunaway, and Benson 1997), occupational delinquency (Gibson and Wright 2001), and software piracy (Higgins and Makin 2004). …

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