Intellectual Property Theft

Kelly Dieterle, Michel Greens, Adriane Powers, Daniel Rosenbaum,
Jeffrey Swinehart



» Download PDF

Sally Sue considers herself to be a very moral and virtuous person. She recently graduated college and is already volunteering at the local library to help kids learn to read. On Sally’s short walk to the library she listens to a digital music player each morning. Sally seems like a model citizen, but what she does not know is that she has been participating in a serious crime and never believed she was acting unethically.

The serious crime this scenario depicts is intellectual property theft. The current state of the Internet and information technology is distinctive in the fact that it has no set borders for jurisdiction (Rodgers, Marcus).  This lack of control has increased the awareness of the ethical issues involved with Intellectual Property Rights. The concern of intellectual property theft, while recognized internationally, is still lacking conceptual understanding and lawful enforcement.  The fact that intellectual property theft is wrong is not the question that needs to be addressed; rather, the questions are: why is this problem hard to control and why do many peer groups still participate in these criminal acts?  In an effort to understand why some members of peer groups still support the stealing of intellectual property, the theories of moral disengagement and social learning theory are used to justify this act.

Intellectual Property Issues
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines intellectual property as property that is derived from the work of the mind or intellect by an idea, invention, or process. This paper investigates two forms of intellectual property that are commonly “pirated” and examines how individuals justify this immoral behavior. The illegal act of piracy is a form of stealing that can be defined as: “To take or appropriate without right with intent to keep or make use of wrongfully” (Miriam Webster Online.).   

Historical Background of Intellectual Property Theft
            The idea of intellectual property ownership has been a concern since the time of ancient Greece. With the creation of the printing press, intellectual property was subject to unauthorized duplication and distribution (UK Intellectual Property).
International pressure for intellectual property protection during the 1980’s and the 1990’s forced the first international policy concerning intellectual property rights.  During the Uruguay Rounds the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) met for the first time as the World Trade Organization (WTO).  During this meeting Intellectual Property Rights became a main topic of discussion (Grossman, Gene M. and Lai, Edwin L, page 3). The Uruguay Rounds established the 1994 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPs). This agreement gave the WTO regulation over minimum standards of protection for many intellectual property categories. Since the creation of TRIPs, intellectual property laws have become a major factor in determining new entry into the WTO.  As an example, Russia’s unwillingness to enforce their own intellectual property laws has been a major factor in their inability to join the World Trade Organization. The root of Russia’s problem stems around a website called  This site allows users to download pirated copies of American music for less then a dollar (Wall Street Journal).
One classic example of the legal issue surrounding intellectual property rights is Napster.  In 1999, Shawn Fanning, a Northeastern college drop out, created a website that changed the way individuals viewed intellectual property theft.  The original Napster was a service that allowed users to share MP3 files for free.  This website was the first of many sites to allow file sharing.  Following the creation of the site, the Industry Association of America filed suit against Napster, charging them with Tributary Copyright Infringement.  Although Napster argued in court that because the actual files were never in Napster's possession the website was not acting illegally (The Napster Controversy), the company was charged with contributing to and facilitating other people's infringement.  This case has set a precedent for many other websites accused of similar infringements. 

Moral Disengagement and the Social Learning Theory
Social Learning Theory and Moral Disengagement can be used to justify intellectual property theft.  The Social Learning Theory focuses on learning that occurs in a social context and explains certain behavioral patterns among humans.  When one person sees another performing an act, they are likely to copy that act.  This theory explains how an individual is able to unjustly use unauthorized versions of intellectual property, as it is a function of attitudes that are learned and reinforced by peer groups (Akers, 1998).  The social learning theory explains that individuals copy behavior observed from others.  Thus, learning how to steal intellectual property is a result of behavior mimicked by one’s peers (Akers, 1998).  As individuals continue to copy their peers, they begin to displace the blame on others instead of themselves.  This underlies the theory of moral disengagement because the individual is transforming what may be viewed as immoral in society, but moral in his own mind.  Therefore, when behavior has been socially learned, one must morally disengage himself to justify unethical actions. 
Moral disengagement can be defined as justifying one’s unethical actions by altering what may be deemed unethical by a society.  If an individual is able to justify stealing intellectual property, he is morally disengaging himself from what his society may view as unethical.  When stealing from recording or software companies, people may believe that they are performing the task of a modern day “Robin Hood”.   The idea of “Robin Hood” justifies stealing intellectual property as the folk hero would; stealing from the rich and powerful and giving to the commoner.  Albert Bandura’s theory on Moral Disengagement explains that individuals rationalize stealing by learning methods to justify an immoral act.  Even though Bandura refers to inhumanities with several of his theories, Moral Disengagement can be applied to intellectual property theft as well. Bandura says that “People do not ordinarily engage in harmful [inhumane] conduct until they have justified to themselves the morality of their actions” (Bandura, 1999).  When justifying the use of stolen intellectual property, a thief justifies stealing by believing it is okay to take from the rich and powerful just as Robin Hood would have. 

Intellectual Property Theft Justified by Legitimate Business
There are many current examples of how social learning theory and moral disengagement negatively influence legitimate businesses. and The Geek Squad are two prominent examples.
The website was founded in February of 2005 as a consumer media website that allows users to watch, share, and tag videos. originated as a personal video sharing service, and has grown into a virtual entertainment destination (
YouTube gained national attention when a clip from Saturday Night Live was posted on the site.  Although YouTube has an official policy that prohibits the submission of copyrighted material without written consent, the Saturday Night clip was illegally uploaded to YouTube.  The site does not allow content that is not approved by the United States copyright law.  After the posting, NBC took swift action, ordering YouTube to remove the unauthorized clips from the website. To strengthen YouTube’s policy on copyright infringement, they set a maximum length for each video.  Again, users found a way around this policy by splitting the original video into segments less than 10 minutes, thus making a series of video clips.  This is an example of moral disengagement through the idea that there is no visible victim.  Users of YouTube have no direct connection to the people they are stealing from.
In October of 2006, Google bought for $1.65 billion after the site signed agreements with the major networks to escape copyright infringement.  As a new age dawns on YouTube, many questions arise.  Will the sale of YouTube to Google make a seemingly illegal website legitimate?  Will they be able to develop better business practices and technology to help find and remove illegal content?  Only society’s ethical views can determine the future legitimacy of this site.

The Geek Squad
The Geek Squad is a technology support company specializing in servicing home and office electronics.  In 2002, they paired with Best Buy to integrate kiosks in all their stores so that their service can reach a greater number of people.
In April of 2006, “[Winternals Software has] sued Best Buy Co. Inc. in federal court on Tuesday, alleging that the nation's largest consumer electronics retailer was using unlicensed versions of its diagnostic equipment” (, 2006).  They accused the Geek Squad of using pirated versions of their software after they failed to reach an agreement on renewing the license earlier this year. 
            Within 20 days of filing suit, Best Buy was ordered to stop using the illegal software.  They later settled out of court and reached an agreement to reuse Winternals’ programs.  While the immediate impact is felt by Best Buy and the Geek Squad, the long-term impact will be felt by everyone.  With all the new technology and the precautions companies are taking to stop the theft of their intellectual property, thieves are getting smarter and finding ways around the current technology to keep stealing intellectual property.
The Geek Squad incident reveals how greatly social learning theory affects corporate culture. Employees within this company learned through their fellow workers that pirating illegal software was acceptable.

In the realm of intellectual property, certain members of society have deemed it acceptable to copy original works, as they have seen others do, and view this as acceptable behavior.  These actions are justified, as explained earlier, with the social learning theory and the theory of moral disengagement.  This problem has intensified to immense proportions and now spans across the globe.  Even though the copying of original intellectual property has increased greatly, there are certain solutions that can curb the problem of intellectual property infringement. The recommendations include: changing society’s views, finding a legal solution to share music, and increasing the protection of intellectual property through legislation.
The most effective solution towards the goal of ending copyright infringement and, in this case, illegal music downloading, is to change society’s views about the music industry.  First, however, one must know how to change individual people’s perceptions before an entire societal shift can occur. Albert Bandura, when discussing the displacement of blame in a societal group, states that “When everyone is responsible, no one really feels responsible,” (Bandura, 1999).  Individual people are much more likely to follow their peers in any situation rather than contradicting them and feel much less guilty than if they were performing the same act alone. In turn, because intellectual property theft has become so common, today’s youth are beginning to view intellectual property theft, and more specifically illegal downloading, as a solution rather than a problem.
The main concern is that today’s youth is actively participating in moral disengagement and are purposefully ignoring the morality of their actions when they download free music.  To change this, influential figures in today’s music business must speak out against intellectual property theft.  One of the most prominent figures in the rap industry, Dr. Dre, frequently speaks out against illegal music downloading and was also one of the first artists to sue Napster, saying, “I don’t like people stealing my music,” (Borland, 2000).  Through his actions and words, Dr. Dre is demonstrating to children and teens that they are stealing from the artists that they love to listen to and it is affecting them in a very negative way. If more influential artists continue to speak out against illegal downloading the way Dr. Dre has, then hopefully it will change individual’s justification for downloading music illegally.
 A more concrete solution to altering society’s views about downloading music involves gradually introducing a legal solution for downloading music online.  In a society where illegal downloading is readily accessible, many college campuses are attempting to fix this widespread problem.  Cytrax is a digital media service that provides access to multi media to college students from many universities. In the Bear Creek apartments, at the University of Colorado in Boulder, there is a free program provided to the University to allow students to listen to music online.  Cytrax offers over 100,000 artists and 23 genres. This allows students to listen to a wide variety of music on their computer, and if the student wants to permanently own the music that they are listening to, there is a fee of $6.99 per month and a cost of $.89 per each song or a cost of $ 9.99 for an album.  If a student decides to pay for a monthly subscription or the songs that they want, they can transfer their music to an I-pod and permanently have these songs on their computer.  If the students decide not to pay the fee, they can continue to listen to the songs in the network for at no cost.  This is an attempt to reduce the number of illegal music and multi-media downloads.  This system allows royalty fees to be paid to the respected parties and students can listen to the music that they want to listen to (Cytrax). This example represents a tangible solution to a widespread ethical dilemma.  If it is possible to spread this system to other campuses, then it will be very possible to influence others to download music legally.  If this is combined with music artists speaking out against illegal downloading, then people’s views will certainly start to change and the problem of illegal downloading will dissipate.
Another recommendation to solve copyright infringement is to increase intellectual property legislation on a global scale.  Because every nation has different laws for different crimes, there is no standard.  There must be a universal code in regards to copyright infringement. The U.S. is one of the biggest supporters of increased legislation.  As patent attorney Dominic Keating explains, “A legal infrastructure allows business to flourish. In this regard, Intellectual Property Rights protection contributes towards development,” (Morse, 2006). What the U.S. Government is trying to do is demonstrate to other countries, particularly those in Asia, that copying other people’s work is slowing down the development of business, which ultimately hurts these economies.  Yet, because intellectual property theft is lightly regulated in many countries, the adverse piracy business continues to flourish.  As stated before, if the piracy business continues to expand in these countries, American companies may have less of an incentive to invent certain types of software and technology, hurting domestic as well as international business.  Therefore, it is extremely important that nations across the globe support the initiative towards increased legislation; before individuals lose all incentive to produce any original ideas for fear that they will be stolen.


Although the theft of intellectual property has always been an ethical dilemma, it is rapidly becoming a crucial problem.  Intellectual property infringement has reached global proportions.  Recommendations for resolution of this issue include: changing societies views, finding a legal solution to share music, and increasing the protection of intellectual property through legislation. When implemented in unison, these recommendations could be effective in reducing immoral attitude towards intellectual property theft.  The Sally Sue example demonstrated social learning theory by showing how Sally learned from her peer groups that pirating music is acceptable. In relation to moral disengagement, Sally Sue believed that stealing from the rich and powerful record companies had no observable affect, and so continued her practices with little concern. Finally, as confirmed by both the YouTube and Geek Squad examples, these theories have increased from being applied on an individual level to a corporate business level.

Works Cited

Akers, R. (1998). Social learning and social structure: A general theory of crime and deviance. Boston: North Eastern University Press.
Associated Press. "Best Buy's 'Geek Squad' Accused of Pirating Software." FoxNews. 13 Apr. 2006. 15 Nov. 2006 <,2933,191593,00.html>.
Bandura, A. (1999). Moral Disengagement in the Perpetration of Inhumanities. Retrieved October 14, 2006, from:
Grossman, Gene M. and Lai, Edwin L. “International Protection of Intellectual Property”  January 2002. NBER Working Paper No. 8704. October 1, 2006
Intellectual Property. 12 November 2006.
Levin, Aron M.; Dato-on, Mary Conway; Rhee, Kenneth. “Money for Nothing and Hits for Free: The Ethics of Downloading Music from Peer to Peer Web Sites. Journal of Marketing Theory & Practice, Winter2004, Vol. 12 Issue 1, p48-60, 13p, 3 charts, 1 diagram
Morse, Jane. Intellectual Property Benefits All Nations, U.S. Experts Say. Retrieved October 14, 2006, from:
“Music Site Is Roadblock, To Russia's WTO Entry”, Associated Press- Wall Street Journal. October 5, 2006 4:35 p.m
Rogers, Marcus K. “A social Learning Theory and Moral Disengagement Analysis of Criminal Computer Behavior: an exploratory study” October 10, 2006. <>
The Napster Controversy. October 5, 2006.