media economy

Copy culture: What people actually think about file sharing

The revolutions in the media economy and the new media landscape are producing new dynamics in the circulation of digital files. To appreciate how image makers might function best in this new ecology, we need to learn from other areas, and music is one domain where some work has been done.

The American Assembly, affiliated with Columbia University in New York, has produced a study on Copy Culture in the US and Germanywhich “explores what Americans and Germans do with digital media, what they want to do, and how they reconcile their attitudes and values with different policies and proposals to enforce copyright online.”

Many discussions of these issues proceed in terms of assumptions and generalisations that often have little evidence to back them up. The great virtue of Copy Culture is it provides some hard data on what is actually happening in the new media economy, and that data paints a picture at odds with the oft-heard claims about a rampant and destructive “culture of free” on the web – symbolised in the graphic at the top of this post.

In both the US and Germany people like to share music, most of it bought legally. There are not huge differences in national attitudes, and the vast majority think it is reasonable to share with family and friends. Only small numbers (less than 20%) want to put files on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks for others to download. There are generational differences, but the numbers are a very long way from painting an anarchic picture of moral depravity.

When the American Assembly study looked at the composition of people’s music collections they found two things. First, that “‘copying from friends/family’ is comparable in scale and prevalence to ‘downloading for free’.” And it is worth remembering that much of the material copied from friends and family is legally purchased in the first place – it is similar in many ways to passing a book around once you have finished reading it.

Secondly, they found something that matches the conclusions of numerous other studies that have put illegal file sharing in perspective: “The biggest music pirates are also the biggest spenders on recorded music.” 

And as the study observed, “if absolute spending is the metric, then P2P users value music more highly than their non-P2P using, digital-collecting peers, not less. They’re better digital consumers.” So just because people share for free doesn’t mean they don’t value what they share. Appreciating how enhanced sharing leads to greater purchases – how the virtues of the web can be leveraged – is one of the most important things for anyone producing creative content in the new media economy.

One study, even a good one like Copy Culture, won’t end the debate on sharing in the internet economy. But it certainly casts a more sober and hopeful light on what people are actually doing and thinking.


Image credits: top graphic from Mot/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. The report graphics are from the American Assembly web site, at and

2 replies on “Copy culture: What people actually think about file sharing”

[…] In this day and age, the internet has made file sharing all too easy. Brilliant for us; being able to steal a couple of songs off of a friends ITunes, not so great for the music industry it’s coming from. This is the case with everything; photography, art, music, films. The sharing of files, in particular in music is something the great David Cambell is writing about, right here.  […]

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