Recently, I rented a DVD and saw the all-too-familiar anti-piracy ad before the movie started. This got me thinking. Most of the people I know would not take a CD from a store without paying for it. Most of the people I know do go online and download unlicensed copies of songs and other digital media without paying for them. It is clearly in the interest of organizations such as the RIAA and MPAA to try and prevent illegal downloads which cut into their bottom line. This is why they publish ad campaigns portraying the two acts as morally equivalent examples of stealing. However, the ease and availability of free pirated media online suggests that anti-piracy groups have been largely unsuccessful in changing behavior. People may call file-sharing “stealing” with a nudge and a wink, but most of the people who “steal” digital media would not take a hardcopy of the same media from a store. This makes me think that ad campaigns aimed at exploiting this intuition are doubly wrong-headed. If people shared the intuition that it is wrong to copy a file in the same way that it’s wrong to take a CD, the ad campaign would not be necessary in the first place. Moreover, it is precisely because most people do not share the intuition upon which the ad is dependent that the ad is ineffective.
The ineffectiveness of anti-piracy ads speaks to a larger point about moral intuition and behavior. When asked why stealing is wrong, most people will answer in one of the following ways: 1)” It hurts someone” (Consequentialism), 2) “What would the world be like if everyone did that?” (Deontology), or 3) “It won’t work out for me in the end” (Prudence…also, sort of Nihilism). Since very few people are caught or prosecuted for illegal file-downloads, the prudence argument against file-sharing is not compelling. The consequentialist argument depends upon identification of a victim who is harmed by the copying of digital media. The fact that the recording industry has yet to come up with a sympathetic poster child* to summon the guilt of the pirating public strongly suggests that such a victim doesn’t exist. That leaves us with the deontological argument which is weakened only by the fact that the hypothetical question it poses already has an answer, and that answer is surprisingly pleasant. We already live in a world where most people consume pirated media, and yet musicians still record songs, writers still write novels, and filmmakers still make films.
Leaving aside opinion polls and behavioral statistics, a compelling argument can be made that copyrights constitute a moral right which corresponds to a moral obligation on the part of the media consumer. If copyrights are a subgroup of property rights, and if property rights are a subgroup of moral rights, and if we have moral rights (inalienable, natural, God-given, or what-have-you), then you can make the argument that we are morally obligated to pay artists for their copyright in the same way we are morally obligated to refrain from trespassing or violating another person’s body. The problem here is that an equally compelling argument can be made that these rights aren’t equivalent. Moreover, the concept of natural rights is itself highly problematic. We don’t want to say that copying a digital file is as much of a moral crime as stealing physical property or intruding on another person’s body, but if stealing is wrong because it violates a right, then the same wrong has been committed in all of these cases.
So, to conclude: 1) most people don’t think copyright violations are morally wrong. 2) They don’t think it’s morally wrong because they can’t identify a person who gets harmed, and they don’t think their behavior is contributing to an imminent catastrophe. 3) The only way to make a good case that it is morally wrong to download music is to give heavy moral weight to copyrights. 4) Nobody really gives heavy moral weight to copyrights. I’m not suggesting that anyone ought to participate in digital media piracy. I’m just saying the arguments against it are weak at best.
*Though, of course, there have been some famously unsympathetic ones.