Apr 26, 2004

From the Archives

Fewer Than 1 in 10 Teenagers Believe that Music Piracy is Morally Wrong

For decades, music has created a source of identity and enjoyment for teenagers. While that has been true for many years, a major recent change concerns how teenagers acquire their favorite musical styles and artists. Millions of teens now copy CDs for friends and download unauthorized songs from the Internet – activities commonly referred to as “music piracy.” To address the piracy problem, the recording industry has leveraged legal action against music downloaders and tried to force the closure of illegal Internet music-sharing services (such as the original Napster and Kazaa).

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But a new study conducted by The Barna Group suggests that, despite the widespread coverage of the legal arguments and fight against piracy, most young consumers possess no moral qualms about getting music illegally. Instead, the vast majority of teens (86%) believes that music piracy -including copying a CD for a friend or downloading non-promotional music online for free – either is morally acceptable or is not even a moral issue. Just 8% claim that such activities are morally wrong.

Moreover, the online survey of 1,448 teenagers showed that a teen’s moral perspective on music piracy was the most significant predictor of his or her engagement in music theft. The study, conducted for the Nashville, Tenn.-based Gospel Music Association (GMA), also discovered that the piracy-related views and behaviors of born again Christian teens are nearly the same as those of non-born again young people.

Four Views on Piracy

Teens were asked whether they feel two common forms of music piracy – copying CDs for friends and downloading unauthorized music from the Internet – were morally right, morally wrong, or not a moral issue. Only 1 in every 13 teenagers (8%) expressed moral opposition to piracy – claiming that both copying CDs for others and unauthorized downloading were morally wrong.

However, there are two and a half times more teenagers on the other side of the moral spectrum: 21% of teens said that both CD burning and downloading are morally OK

The most prolific group of teens – representing 2 in every 3 teenagers (65%) – is the moral pragmatists, embracing a “whatever works” philosophy regarding music acquisition. These teenagers believe that music piracy is not a moral issue, or they possess inconsistent views about CD burning and downloading (that is, believing one is wrong while the other is fine). Another 6% of teenagers said they were “undecided” about the morality of music piracy.

Faith Matters?

The study shows that born again Christian teens are not much different than are non-born again teens in terms of holding an anti-piracy moral position. Just 10% of Christian teens believe that copying CDs for friends and unauthorized music downloading are morally wrong, compared to 6% of non-born agains (the four-point difference barely qualified as statistically significant). Also, the proportion of pragmatists was statistically equivalent – 64% of born again Christians and 66% of non-Christians.

One of the most troubling findings of the survey was the fact that most teens opposed to music piracy are not entirely convinced that their perspectives are correct. Just 1 in every 3 teens (36%) who take the piracy-is-wrong view said they feel very certain of that stance. That means just 1 out of every 50 American teens is strongly convinced that it is wrong to copy CDs for friends or to download music illegally. To make matters worse, two-thirds of those teens who embrace piracy (64%) are convinced of their views.

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Attitudes Drive Behavior

Overall, 4 out of every 5 teenagers (80%) have engaged in some type of music piracy in the past six months – including making copies of CDs for other people, downloading free music (other than promotions or giveaways), or uploading their own music files to the Internet to share with others. Based on an examination of more than 70 behavioral and attitudinal variables, the factor most strongly correlated to participation in music piracy is what type of moral perspective the teen maintains on the subject. Most other factors had no apparent connection to engagement in piracy. For instance, active church attenders (78%) were just as likely as non-attenders (81%) to engage in piracy; born again Christians (77%) were just as likely as non-born again Christians (81%). The vast majority of teenagers – typically about 8 out of every 10 teens – had engaged in some form of music piracy during the past six months, regardless of gender, age, region, academic performance, and the marital status of the teen’s parents.

In fact, the study pointed out that even 79% of the teens that claimed their parents understand the issues of music piracy very well had recently committed some form of music piracy. Consequently, the survey indicates that parental awareness of piracy activity and concerns may not stunt such behavior among their offspring.

Unexpectedly, teen buyers of Christian music were just as likely as other teens to engage in music piracy. This included teens who had purchased contemporary Christian music (77% of these buyers had committed an act of piracy), gospel recordings (80%), and worship music (80%).

The strongest correlate of decreased piracy behavior was a teen’s moral view. Among teens who believe piracy is wrong, just 58% had engaged in any form of piracy within the last six months, compared to 63% of those who are undecided, 80% among pragmatists, and 85% of those who claim that piracy is morally OK.

As further evidence of the role attitudes play in the piracy equation, the only group that generated a piracy participation rate of less than 50% was moralists who felt “very certain” of their views. Among these scrupulous teens, “only” 45% had engaged in piracy. Although even the moralists’ piracy activities leave much to be desired, it still represents nearly 50% less participation in illegal forms of music consumption when compared to those who hold a more lax moral view of piracy.

Music Acquisition Sources

Despite some predictions that consumers will no longer buy music in traditional retail outlets as a result of piracy, music stores still reign as the most common music source for teenagers (84% of teenagers said they had purchased a CD or cassette from a music store in the past six months).

Still, illegal forms of acquiring music have become routine activities for most teenagers. Sixty-four percent of teens had made a copy of music for a friend; 58% had made a copy for a family member; 59% had downloaded a free, non-promotional song from the Internet; and 25% had uploaded songs onto the Internet to share with others. As yet, teens have not turned en masse to pay-per-download online services: just 12% of teens said they had paid to download a song in the last six months.

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Piracy Input

One reason teens may embrace music piracy is that they receive little favorable, constructive advice on the issue. When the teenagers surveyed were asked if they had ever heard anyone talk about when it is legal to copy music onto CDs and when it is not legal, barely half (54%) indicated they had been exposed to such input. Even fewer teens (only 48%) have ever heard anyone discuss the morality of music downloading.

Furthermore, when teens get information about the moral choices related to music piracy, it rarely comes from older mentors or their parents. Peers are the most common source of teenagers’ information about CD copying (32%) as well as about music downloading (28%).

Other sources of information related to CD copying included teachers (13%), parents (11%), newscasters (9%), other people on TV (4%), siblings (2%), TV commercials (1%), radio DJs (1%), MTV (1%), newspapers (1%), and the police (1%). The music industry’s efforts to educate the public are impacting few teens when it comes to CD copying: just 5% had heard a musician or artist talk about the issue. None of the teens specifically mentioned music companies or the recording industry as a source of information on the boundaries of CD burning. Less than one-half of 1% indicated that their youth pastor or another church leader had discussed the issue.

The sources of information for the morality of downloading were very similar to those of CD burning: peers (28%), teachers (13%), parents (11%), newscasters (9%), other people on TV (4%), TV commercials (3%), newspapers (2%), siblings (1%), and radio DJs (1%). The music industry was more frequently mentioned when it came to this arena, but not by much: 8% indicated they had seen a musician or artist address downloading while 2% of teens specifically mentioned the music industry. Only 3% of teens listed their pastor and 2% identified their youth pastor as a source of moral perspective about music downloading.

Reactions to the Findings

David Kinnaman, Vice President of The Barna Group and the director of the music piracy study, corrected one of the myths about teenagers and music piracy. “People wrongly assume that teens are just looking for an excuse to rationalize stealing music, to reduce their sense of guilt. But that misses the point: their entire outlook on life – not just about music – revolves around the ‘whatever works,’ postmodern philosophy. According to this philosophy of hyper-individualism, moral behavior is essentially a private, personal matter. Desire, emotion, and personal experience become the benchmarks for determining right and wrong. Authority, truth and even language are viewed as subjective creations of society.”

“That’s why a legal argument against music piracy rings hollow for most teens: they just don’t buy the idea that a company or even an artist can ‘own’ an experience – which is essentially what music represents to them – much less tell them what is right and wrong. A legal challenge to piracy may temporarily alter some teen behavior, but without changing the underlying philosophy with which teens operate, teens’ music theft will just morph into some new form.”

Kinnaman encouraged parents, pastors and youthworkers to play a more active role in helping teenagers understand the moral boundaries of music piracy, because, as he put it, “music piracy is just one stage for the new moral drama being played out. It is a symptom of a bigger problem, but a symptom that should be taken seriously. Online porn is very similar to music piracy in that technology is facilitating and accelerating access. Pornography, therefore, is another area in which the ‘whatever works’ moral philosophy of the up-and-coming generation will be tested severely – and their postmodern philosophy will undermine more than their music loyalties. It will torpedo healthy relationships, sexuality, marriages, and families. If parents and pastors are too busy or too distracted to address music piracy, will they also fail to teach teens how to deal with online pornography and other important moral challenges? Since attitudes drive behavior, to make a difference, whether the issue is online porn or music piracy, churches and families must firmly address teens’ moral attitudes. The best way of doing that is to help teens develop a biblical worldview – that is, a means of experiencing, interpreting, and responding to reality in light of biblical perspectives.”

Research Methodology

The data for this study is based upon 1,449 online interviews conducted among a nationwide sample of teenagers (ages 13 to 18). The study included teenagers with computer and Internet access – online teens who were most likely to understand the new realities of music acquisition. The survey was conducted from February 20, 2004 through February 24, 2004. The sampling error for 1,400+ interviews is plus or minus three percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

The survey was commissioned by the Gospel Music Association of Nashville, Tennessee. Data for this survey were collected by Harris Interactive, headquartered in Rochester, New York. Harris Interactive was responsible for the quality of the online data garnered for this project, while The Barna Group was responsible for survey design and data analysis. Harris Interactive is a worldwide market research and consulting firm best known for the HarrisPoll (®) and for pioneering the Internet method to conduct scientifically accurate market research.


“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not  asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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