At, we’ve always held that piracy is theft. As such it’s morally wrong, but while this is the case, it’s also a fact that it’s one of the most widespread crimes.

Online piracy isn’t just committed by hardened criminals; chances are you yourself, or at least someone you know, has torrented the odd show or helped themselves to a pirated game occasionally. This act, funnily enough, isn’t looked at by the general public as a crime on the same scale as say, stealing a CD, book or DVD from a retailer.

So why don’t we view piracy as being as reprehensible as shoplifting? Well, a new study published by Robert Eres, a PhD student at the Monash Institute for Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience at Monash University in Australia may have found the answer.

Eres’s study suggests that the reason we don’t equate piracy with physical theft is because is simply because our brains don’t make us feel as guilty in both instances.

According to Monash University, the study was conducted with 127 participants over three segments. The first part involved people completing a questionnaire online in which researchers could determine whether a person was more likely steal a tangible item such as a CD or an intangible item such as an illegally distributed MP3 file online.

The results revealed that the subject were more likely to steal something that has no physical presence regardless of the price, the risk or how difficult it is to obtain the item.

Researchers then asked the study participants to imaging stealing a tangible object and then imagine downloading content illegally.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) the researchers were able to determine that the brain was more active while trying to imagine downloading content illegally.

This suggests that people have a harder time trying to imagine stolen intangible items meaning feelings of guilt are harder to stimulate.

You may have the exact same question we had, “but imagining you’re stealing something and actually stealing it, are very different”. The researchers explained why they believe the results are still valid in the study.

“Imagining stealing and actively stealing may not be synonymous with regards to which areas are active. However, previous neuro imaging studies have shown that imagining certain actions and performing those actions rely partially on similar brain regions” reads an excerpt from the study.

A second brain imaging session revealed that the area of the brain associated with guilt was far more active when imagining stealing a tangible item that it was when imagining an instance of piracy.

Head of the Social Neuroscience lab, Dr. Pascal Molenberghs, says that our history with theft and guilt may hold the key to why guilt is so tough to stimulate during acts of piracy.

“Evolutionarily, we have interacted more with physical goods – particularly in respect to ownership”, Dr. Molenberghs told Monash,  “so that is why we are hardwired to respect these more compared to intangible items such as ideas or software.”

According to Eres, the results of this study might also help understand others understand why people feel less guilty in instances of cyber-bullying and cyber-crime.

[Source – Monash][Image – SA BY/2.0 Andrew Smith]