Understanding Music Piracy: A Consideration of Research Methodology by Dr Steven Caldwell Brown

In this brief article, I want to share some thoughts and memories from my Doctoral studies into the psychology of music piracy. Above all, I want to engage readers in a wider debate about research methodology, directing curious readers to resources which will satisfy further reading into the topic area. Food for thought…


Music piracy is one of those things that is difficult to talk about, because people get very emotional. It’s a real thing, something people are engaged in.

Music piracy

When I give talks, for example, I am often confronted with people who flat out refuse what I have to say – it is quite a challenge. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that people don’t like to be told things they don’t want to hear. Also, people like to think they are unique and immune to being categorised as a part of a mean group (as is the case with quantitative research).

The result, for me, is that I often struggle to communicate my research findings in a way that hits home, without hitting people over the head.

As I outline in greater depth in a forthcoming article in the British Psychological Society magazine ‘The Psychologist’, I believe that knowledge transfer is critical for helping me address this issue. As much as I have engaged in writing for publicly accessible resources, including a series of entries on ‘The Conversation’, the room for genuine interaction, and authentic feedback, is limited. The next step is to start talking to people.

Now based at The University of Edinburgh, I am struck by the volume of activities on offer in the city which allow me to do exactly this – this includes giving a Ragged University talk. I am however keen to write something first of all, perhaps through habit. And so I will focus on one of the main research outputs from my Doctoral research, a 2014 article published in the journal Convergence.

Criminal cartoon


How does one go about researching music piracy? And what does psychology have to do with it anyway? These are two valid questions in relation to my research; both are easy enough to answer.

Most research into music piracy is by criminologists, lawyers, and economists. This is intuitive. With these disciplines come particular methodological approaches.

Conducting research into music piracy is typically quantitative in nature: much research adopts survey methodology, looking at relationships between different variables of interest. Low self-control is widely researched in this vein, for instance (considered to be a predictor of piracy engagement). Some of it is well put together, and some not so much. For example, I am unconvinced about flat-out asking people how many songs they have illegally downloaded in the last month (this sort of approach is common). I expect social desirability will play a role with participants responding in biased ways. That is assuming they can even remember something like this.

Other quantitative research tends to adopt economic modelling approaches, where simplified theoretical constructs quantitatively explain relationships between variables.

Another approach exists, which I will return to, but suffice to say that researchers, regardless of their approach, are confronted with some harsh realities. Chiefly, hard figures on music piracy are hard to obtain.

Ian Hargreaves, tasked by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to investigate the potential need for copyright reform in the United Kingdom, produced a report in 2011 which commented on the shortage of reliable data. He noted that, ‘measurement of any area of unlawful activity presents statistical challenges’. Hargreaves noted particularly weak research methods. Obtaining ethical clearance is a barrier I obtained during my Doctoral studies: music piracy is a crime, and so music pirates are criminals. This typically means that indirect measurements or use of proxies of some kind is necessary in order to collect data.

And then what type of data do you collect?

Conceptual issues are abound, with much research assuming all music piracy occurs online and that people download movies for the same reasons as music, or software. Though I have no doubt that the mass majority of digital piracy, broadly speaking, occurs on the internet, I won’t ignore that much of it is likely to occur offline; I have no doubt that friends swap files on hard drives, etc. As this is virtually impossible to measure, any research estimating the scale of music piracy is likely to fall short of the bigger picture. Not everyone has internet access. And, as I have argued elsewhere, I expect people download different types of media for different reasons.

I only mention all of this as I think it is necessary to interpret research findings in the context of how it was conducted. Though this is common sense, I tend to find in popular media that people circulate research findings in support of their beliefs (music piracy is ‘good’ or ‘bad’), without critiquing the methodology. And as research inches ever closer to becoming freely available for all who can find it online, it is important to emphasise that research findings are only ever preliminary.

No one study ‘proves’ anything, but routinely a new research article enters the scene (normally from economists) and is widely circulated and then discussed on social media, etc. Rarely is there a consideration that, for example, the study did not draw from any data whatsoever.

And speaking of data, much of my Doctoral research utilised qualitative methodology – yes, that other approach to research I mentioned.

online data collection

A growing body of research exists utilising varied qualitative methodology, with criminologists offering inventive forms of online data collection, for example, but it will always be the minority – because music piracy is a quantitative issue, right?

Yes and no.

From my point of view, the heart of researching music piracy is a consideration of why people do or do not engage in it. This is psychological. And, psychology is well positioned to consider, qualitatively, the experience of being a so-called ‘music pirate’.

Often when I explain that I have been researching why people engage in music piracy, they say something along the lines of, ‘Is it not just about getting stuff for free?’ This is absolutely a big part of it, there is no doubt. But it is, however, far more complicated. To address money directly though, qualitative research from my PhD, suggests that people are not necessarily trying to avoid saving money, but avoiding giving their money to the ‘wrong people’. They are happy to support their favourite artists, and keen to do so – but they are unconvinced that buying recorded music is a good way for them to achieve this.

Psychology is also a good discipline to bring together research findings from other disciplines, as is necessary, with so many researchers investigating the topic. Psychology is, for example, conceptually similar to sociology, and methodologically similar to criminology.

My main point here, if I do indeed have one, is that I believe there is a real problem in the research community concerning language. That is, it appears that researchers from different backgrounds are not on the same page. It goes beyond simple semantics – George Higgins and Catherine Marcum, prominent North American scholars, argue in their 2011 book ‘Digital Piracy: An Integrated Theoretical Approach, that, ‘music piracy is not a social science issue, but a legal issue’. Naturally I disagree, but more than this I am somewhat surprised that researchers would actively shut out potential collaboration.


Mixed-methods research, bringing together expertise from a variety of disciplines, has been at the heart of CREATe, the RCUK Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy, based at the University of Glasgow and funded jointly by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

I have been following their work from (not so) afar for some years, with their research bringing together scholars from law, economics, management, computer science, sociology, psychology, ethnography and critical studies across seven UK universities and over 80 industry, public sector and civil society partners.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a research project of this size in 2015, CREATe has produced a significant volume of publicly accessible content, from a working paper series, to a database of research articles on copyright issues. Notably, they are broken down by methodology (and yes, most are quantitative).

I envision a world where the dots are joined up in a more systematic way, like with CREATe. And not just between scholars, but the public at large.

Steven Caldwell Brown
Steven Caldwell Brown


Methodology ought to be at the heart of interpreting any research. Though scholars might talk in terms of reliability and validity, when discussing quantitative research, perhaps the qualitative concept of trustworthiness might be more applicable when interacting with general audiences, unfamiliar with statistical jargon.

Or put another way – a solid emphasis on intuition, as guides much of our lives, might open up a better way of discussing research methods, on any topic. Does the research method look and sound convincing? What could have been done differently or better?

I can’t help but feel that without more education on research methods, it won’t ever be possible for scholars and laypersons to fully come together when reviewing the results from research. Perhaps the emphasis on methodology in my research to date, as discussed in my 2014 contribution to the journal Convergence, has skewed my perception of this.

In any case, I would not expect anyone to take what I have to as the ‘final word’ on digital music piracy.

That’s surely not how knowledge exchange works.

What are your weblinks?

  • Website – www.stevencaldwellbrown.com

  • Blog – www.musicpiracyresearchblog.blogspot.com

  • Twitter – @musicpiracyguy

  • Public Email – [email protected]

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