Bottom line: The study demonstrates the complex psychology behind anti-piracy messaging. While risks and legal consequences may deter some groups, threatening tactics can seriously backfire for others. A better understanding of audience psychology is needed to craft campaigns that reduce rather than increase digital piracy.

A new study from the University of Portsmouth reveals that threatening anti-piracy messages can actually increase digital piracy behaviors in men. The research, published in the Journal of Business Ethics, found that men were 18% more likely to pirate content after being exposed to intimidating anti-piracy messaging, while women responded positively by reducing piracy intentions.

Digital piracy - accessing copyrighted content through unlicensed sources - is a major challenge facing creative industries worldwide. This study examined how effective different types of anti-piracy messages are in deterring piracy intentions and behaviors.

The researchers, led by Kate Whitman of the Centre for Cybercrime and Economic Crime at the University of Portsmouth, tested participants' reactions to three real-world anti-piracy campaigns - two using threatening language about legal consequences, and one focused on educating people about the harms of piracy.

One threatening message from Crimestoppers, an independent charity, focused on risks of viruses, hacking, and identity theft. The other outlined legal consequences of piracy under France's "three strikes" laws terminating internet access after repeated infringement warnings. The educational message highlighted economic and moral impacts of piracy, promoting legal alternatives.

Whitman explained to that while men pirate more than women overall, they still wanted to study gender differences in reactions to anti-piracy messaging. "We found that one size definitely doesn't fit all when combating piracy - men and women respond very differently."

While the educational message had no impact on piracy intentions, the results showed a significant gender gap in reactions to threatening messaging. Women reduced piracy intentions by over 50% in response to threats, but men increased intended piracy by 18%.

"The research shows that anti-piracy messages can inadvertently increase piracy, which is a phenomenon known as psychological reactance," explained Whitman. "From an evolutionary psychology point of view, men have a stronger reaction to their freedom being threatened and therefore they do the opposite."

Moreover, those with the most favorable attitudes toward piracy exhibited the most extreme reactions, with threatening messages increasing their piracy even further.

Whitman concluded that anti-piracy advocates need tailored approaches to effectively reduce piracy without unintended backlash. Since messages can't always be targeted by gender, avoidance of threats is safest when gender can't be determined.

Piracy has been on the upswing since the start of 2021 following years of decline, according to data from MUSO, a UK tracking firm. Smarter campaigns are the need of the hour, but with streaming platforms like Netflix and Apple TV increasing their prices, it's going to be tricky.

Image credits: jcomp via Pixabay