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The Ethics of Digital Piracy: Home

A site exploring the problem of digital piracy in higher education


When the pirate e-book site Z-library was shut down on November 1, students who had used it to download unauthorized copies of expensive textbooks were alarmed, while authors and publishers celebrated the closure of a so-called shadow library that one author said “is killing us” (Cramer, 2022). The struggle over digital piracy extends to college campuses, where the illegal downloading of copyrighted material is widespread. This project aims to spark a dialogue about the ethical implications of digital piracy at Susquehanna University, raise awareness among those who use pirated materials of the risks and consequences, and identify measures students and faculty can take to reduce digital piracy.
Digital piracy includes the copying, sharing, and downloading of scholarly articles, book chapters, and textbooks. The economic impact on the publishing industry alone was estimated at $80-100 million by the Association of American Publishers in 2012 (Springen, 2014). Seven years later, the Authors Guild put the cost at over $300 million (Rau, 2019). Book piracy continues to rise, with one study showing visits to publishing piracy sites increasing to 11.66 billion in the third quarter of 2021, nearly double the number (6.02 billion visits) from the same quarter of 2020 (MUSO, 2021). All those illegal downloads may seem trivial when viewed in the context of the publishing industry’s revenue from selling textbooks alone: $7.85 billion in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The high price of textbooks deters some students from purchasing the materials required for their courses. However, these high prices should not obscure the ethical dilemmas of widespread digital piracy.
It is a subject worth of ethical consideration, according to Australian moral philosopher Hugh Breakey. If piracy is wrong, Breakey (2018) observes, “it is wrongness committed on a vast scale by millions of (perhaps otherwise morally decent) citizens, with substantial social and economic impacts” (p. 677). Authors depend on revenue from selling their work, and piracy impacts those authors’ ability to make a living and create new work. Do people engaging in piracy consider the impact of their actions? In a survey of 270 undergraduate students in China, Cheolho Yoon (2011) found that many students “regard digital piracy as an unfair and unethical behavior” (p. 413) even as they engage in the practice.

Breakey, H. (2018). Deliberate, Principled, Self-Interested Law Breaking: The Ethics of Digital “Piracy.” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 38(4), 676–705.
Cramer, J. (2022, November 4). Pirated e-book site Z-Library vanishes—sending college students into a panic. Fast Company. Retrieved from
MUSO. (October 27, 2021). Number of visits to publishing piracy sites worldwide from 1st quarter 2020 to 3rd quarter 2021 (in billions) [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved from
Rau, C. M. (2019, July 24). How to help combat piracy in publishing. BOOK RIOT. Retrieved November 9, 2022, from
Springen, K. (2014). The piracy problem. Publishers Weekly, 261(29), 24-n/a. Retrieved from
US Census Bureau. (November 23, 2021). Estimated textbook publishing revenue in the United States from 2010 to 2020 (in billion U.S. dollars) [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved from
Yoon, C. (2011). Theory of Planned Behavior and Ethics Theory in Digital Piracy: An Integrated Model. Journal of Business Ethics, 100(3), 405–417.

Project team

Haley Dittbrenner, Creative Writing / Publishing and Editing major, Class of 2025 -

Rob Sieczkiewicz, Associate Professor, Director of the Blough-Weis Library -

Project proposal

In the first phase of the project, Dittbrenner and Sieczkiewicz will review the literature on campus digital piracy and consider the measures universities have taken to stop the practice. Then we will survey students about their use of pirate sites, engaging in qualitative interviews with a smaller subset of survey respondents. Faculty will also be surveyed to gauge their understanding of the role of piracy on campus, including their own familiarity with pirate sites. Once the surveys are completed and data shared with participants, students and faculty will meet for a discussion of the ethical issues of textbook piracy, facilitated by Dittbrenner and Sieczkiewicz. At the end of the semester, Dittbrenner will share her findings in a presentation and written report to the committee.
The anticipated outcomes of the project for participants are:

  • Faculty will understand the scope of student use of pirate sites
  • Students will understand the risk to themselves and the harm done to others by digital piracy
  • Students and faculty will identify measures they can take to reduce digital piracy at Susquehanna


Blough-Weis Library

514 University Avenue

Selinsgrove, PA 17870 | 570.372.4160

Susquehanna University


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