A recent study by Australian neuroscientists, Torrent Freak reports, asked why digital piracy elicits so little guilt for transgressors relative to physical theft. As TF put it, "To most it just doesn't 'feel' the same."
The researchers from the Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences first confirmed, via questionnaire, that study participants were more likely to steal intangible goods vs tangible ones. Next, they scanned the brains of subjects while asking them to imagine tangible and intangible goods, respectively, finding that intangible goods caused far greater relative brain activity. In other words, it was more difficult of a task to conceive of these intangible goods in the first place.
Next, participants were asked to imagine stealing these intangible and tangible goods, which registered marked activity in the area of the brain associated with "moral sensitivity" — and this area was far more active for tangible goods. After the study, subjects reported far greater feelings of guilt for the tangible items (a 6 on a 1-7 scale of guilt) versus intangible ones (a 4 on the same scale). TF reports:
"Social Neuroscience lab head Dr Pascal Molenberghs says that this suggests that people have less problem breaking laws covering intangible items since they experience more difficulties imagining them so their brains feel less guilty when they 'steal' them."
This result echoes a quote in Freeloading from neuroscientist Anders Sandberg, who told The Atlantic in 2010, "The nature of Intellectual Property makes it hard to maintain the social and empathic constraints that keep us from taking each other's things."
What is the proper response to this "difficulty" in imagining and accepting the value of digital goods? One option, and I believe the most common by far, is to not trouble yourself at all and go on pirating, stream ripping etc. more or less anonymously. Another is to take the minimal leap in thought and imagination to understand the nature of creative careers and the value of respecting the choices of creators enough to not heedlessly pirate. A third option is to construct an elaborate defense mechanism against accepting the rather obvious truth that digital piracy is a choice to violate the rights of others, in this case creatives...and that's when you get the comment section at Torrent Freak, which I highly recommend, oozing with "copying isn't theft" desperation.
I agree that pirating a few albums isn't quite the same as fleeing a store with a clattering stack of CDs under your arm, so I don't love the word "theft" when it comes to digital. However, something is surely being stolen from creative people when "intangible" goods are taken: their basic agency.
And its the erosion of agency, from an out-of-control black market of piracy, that creates a vicious cycle, leading artists to accept the piddling payouts from streaming services, for example. It's a process of lowering standards.
So it's "hard" to get people to understand the nature of "intangible" goods, intellectual property, etc. OK. And maybe you can't expect people to care enough about it to read a book or a few articles about it to settle their minds. Well, then what do we do?
We understand that it if protecting the choices of artists actually matters then there need to be some signals and penalties along the digital road for those who require a bit of education. When I was in Spain recently to promote the Spanish release of Freeloading, I found myself talking a lot about small fines for repeat infringers. Like a speeding ticket. Not a $3,000 lawsuit or anything that could ruin peoples lives, but enough to incentivize legal consumption and to communicate, "this matters." There are other methods: watermarking/DRM, filtering, domain blocking... But I think small fines, administered by the very ISPs who have profited hundreds of millions if not billions off of piracy over the years (it juiced up demand for their services), looks like a piece of what "effective enforcement" actually looks like.