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The Law and Norms of File Sharing

  • Publication: San Diego Law Review

2006, Janice Nadler, San Diego Law Review

Yuval Feldman & Janice Nadler (2006), “The Law and Norms of File Sharing” 43 San Diego Law Review 577-618.


Social norms play a central role in explaining why people obey the law. Models featuring the expressive function of the law focus on the norm-mediated effect of law on behavior - that is, law influences existing social norms, which in turn influence behavior. In this Article, we focus on the question of how law influences social norms. We seek to understand the characteristics of law that influence people's opinions about the social acceptability of the behavior law seeks to regulate. To address these questions, we examined the practice of sharing digital files of copyrighted material ("file sharing"). We conducted an experiment to identify the characteristics of copyright law that influence perceptions of the consensus about unlawful file sharing. Results suggest that both formal and informal sanctions associated with copyright regulations influence perceptions of file sharing behavior. At the same time, law did not influence perceptions of file sharing behavior in the absence of any sanctions, and making salient the moral justifications for refraining from unlawful file sharing also did not influence perceptions. We discuss the implications of our study both for the theoretical debate about the expressive function of the law, and for the policy debate regarding curbing unlawful file sharing.

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