Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Ethics of Piracy

What is moral is not always what is legal and vice versa. The concept of morality and legality are connected only insofar as we attempt to make our system of laws coincide with what we think is right. I will assume here that downloading files such as music, movies, software, games etc. from peer to peer file sharing sites such as Pirate Bay is considered piracy and is illegal due to copyright infringement laws, but I want to examine whether someone who wants to behave morally can download content from file sharing sites without moral reprehension.

     1. If you take something that is not yours without permission or payment, you have stolen. [given]
     2. When you download digital content, you take what is not yours without permission or payment.* [given]
     3. Downloading digital content is stealing. [1, 2 modus ponens] 
    Some may object to my premise 2 by claiming that those who download digital content are not taking what is not theirs without permission or payment, they are simply copying content without permission or payment. No physical good has changed hands and therefore, downloading in this context does not constitute theft, piracy maybe, but not theft. This with the implication that theft is morally abhorrent but piracy is morally acceptable. If this is your argument then a slight rewording should make you feel better, at least for the moment. 
         4. If you copy something that is not yours without permission or payment, you have committed piracy. [given]
         5. When you download digital content, you copy what is not yours without permission or payment.* [given]
         6. Downloading digital content is piracy. [1, 2 modus ponens]
      This is fine, but it gets us nowhere; it simply moves the goalposts. It is still up to us whether or not piracy is morally acceptable. Theft is not morally wrong because you have taken something from someone, nor is piracy acceptable because you have not. What makes theft and piracy wrong is that someone has suffered a loss from either your taking something or copying it.** This loss can be emotional or monetary and can range from minute to severe. Theft that does not cause suffering remains theft, but is ethically unproblematic, and the same is true for piracy. I will argue that under certain circumstances, piracy is morally permissible.

      Imagine a small group of kids, maybe eight or nine years old, gathered together on a grassy hill that overlooks a ballpark where a major league game is taking place. These kids love baseball, they collect all the baseball cards that they can get their hands on and idolize the players, but simply can't afford to buy tickets for the games. These kids get immense enjoyment out of watching the games from the hill and take nothing from the enjoyment from the fans or players. Had the the walls of the ballpark been slightly higher, or the hill been slightly smaller, these kids would have simply done something else that day, but we can safely assume that they would have not seen the game. The ballpark has lost nothing in revenue and possibly gained lifelong fans who may spend generously on tickets and merchandise in the future, a net gain to the baseball industry. 

      Stealing a glimpse of a baseball game and stealing digital content is much the same in that no physical good is lost. The record company can still sell a song, despite the fact that you stole a copy, but a grocery store cannot still sell the candy that is now missing and they cannot make a copy of the original without incurring costs. What the record company has lost is not the physical good, but the potential revenue that the sale of that good would have brought in. If someone wants candy but cannot afford it, they obviously should do without (or acquire the means to obtain it legally), but this may not be true for someone without the means to afford digital content. In fact, downloading content illegally in certain circumstances may not be morally wrong at all. In what circumstances you ask? Only in circumstances that mimic those in the baseball analogy. You must only download content that you would have never paid for. Under these strictures, the manufacturer of the product loses nothing in the transaction between the pirate and the file sharing site, yet there has been a net gain in the overall level of happiness (most prominently in that of the pirate). No one else has lost, and he has gained. By all accounts this is a victimless crime. The same line holds true for someone who is unwilling to buy an item yet has the means to pay for it. In each case, neither the manufacturer, supplier, marketer, nor retailer would have benefited financially and thus, these entities have essentially lost nothing. Downloading digital content in this manner does not lead to a measurable drop in revenues of companies, but it does lead to an immense increase in the aggregate level of happiness of human beings.

      Never download something that you are willing and able to pay for. This is not only theft, but is morally indefensible. If you have downloaded items in the past that you were willing and able to pay for, purchase the items new from your favorite retailer or send the company a check with an explanation attached. Do your best to make things right.  

        * assume that you do not have permission and that the content is not free since these things are not at issue here. 
        ** without an offsetting gain in happiness.