Is Digital Piracy Wrong?

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.

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12 Responses to “Is Digital Piracy Wrong?”

  1. James Gray Says:

    Our piracy laws are totally different from stealing. I’ve heard various explanations of the difference between the two. One can be found here:

    Pretty much the same thing you just said here. I like that you mentioned consequentialism, but I don’t know what to think about deontology. I’m sure you know that “what if everyone did it” is not really an accurate representation of deontology, but the problem is figuring out what would be an accurate representation. What counts other than consequences (or even predictions of consequences) is the main issue.

    One sort of deontology could have to do with rights through a social contract and our personal commitments to the contract (or our commitment to that contract given ideal rationality.)

    As you said, part of the problem is that authors want to be able to distribute their property rather than other people distributing it. Music, books, and so on. Ebooks in particular could become difficult to sell if piracy laws didn’t exist. That would make it “not worth selling” in the first place, so less quality ebooks would be available. I don’t know if any of that is true because it depends on potential human behavior and various outcomes that are not easily predictable, but that’s the argument as I see it.

    When someone burns a bunch of movies to disks and starts selling them illegally, we know something “wrong” is happening. I think we have pretty strong intuitions against that sort of piracy. We just don’t care so much about altruistic sorts of piracy. I think one reason why is our socialistic intuitions. To stop altruistic piracy would be to have less stuff in the world. Less free music means less people to enjoy the music.

    Capitalism encourages us to create and own less stuff when it forbids altruistic piracy, constrains behavior though copyright laws in general, and forbids making use of patented technology.

    • Liza Says:

      “What if everyone did this” is not a perfect representation of deontology by any means, but I think it is adequate for my purposes here. If you prefer, we could say “Could I consistently will that my maxim to reproduce copyrighted material for personal use become universal law.” If the answer to that question is “No, because if it was universal law that everyone pirate, then the copyrighted material I want to pirate couldn’t exist” then you would have a good case against digital piracy. The essential element in the hypothetical projection is not the consequences but the contradiction. It’s not that things would be really bad if everyone did this, it’s that, if everyone did this, the system itself couldn’t exist, so my doing it is really a kind of cheating- i.e., I’m banking on the fact that everyone else is a sucker, because if they weren’t, I couldn’t do this. That being said, I don’t think this is the case with digital piracy. People don’t make art just because they hope to profit off a copyright, they do it because they want to create and they want other people to appreciate their creation. Art has, after all, been around much, much, longer than our current laws regarding intellectual property rights. So, I don’t think that digital piracy is cheating in this way. Even if everyone pirated digital media, the media would still be produced because it is produced for lots of other reasons besides profit. Plus, there are lots of ways in which those who make movies and music profit from their production.

  2. Amy G Dala Says:

    I just posted this blog in my blog & didn’t give you credit or link back to here.

    • James Gray Says:

      Is plagiarism the same thing as piracy, or is it wrong for the same reason? I don’t see a strong analogy between the two. You can sell pirated movies without claiming that you made the movies.

    • Liza Says:

      I am going to agree with James, at least in part, here. I don’t see a strong analogy between plagiarism (falsely taking credit for something that you did not create) and copying a digital file for personal use. But, I see at least one way in which your point is relevant. There are two ethical issues underlying plagiarism: honesty and desert. The default position in most ethical theories is that lying is wrong. So, publishing my work as your own is wrong because you’re lying about its origin. In contrast, I don’t see how file-sharing is deceptive. Nobody is pretending that they produced anything, they’re just enjoying it. That being said, file-sharing is like plagiarism in the sense that, in both cases, the person who produces the work is not getting what they deserve.
      Unfortunately, desert itself is a very problematic concept. Nobody deserves their genes, family, or the social class and environment into which they are born, but those thinks exert a TREMENDOUS influence on anything they will accomplish in the future. Even the disposition to work hard is itself the result of environment and genetics. This leads me to the conclusion that a person who gets rich by working hard or inventing something is no more deserving of wealth than a person who wins the lottery. In both cases, factors beyond their control determined their fortune. So, I am inclined to just throw out the concept and say that nobody really deserves anything. What we really mean when we say someone “deserves” something is only that they have a legitimate claim on it, which can just be a legal technicality. For example, kids who inherit wealth don’t “deserve” to be rich, but they have a claim on the money. People who create something beautiful don’t deserve to be revered, but they can take credit for their work and accept the reverence that accompanies it.
      I don’t know your political views, but it might be worth mentioning here that the people who put stock in desert and property rights tend to lean right/libertarian. If you believe that the free market rewards virtue rather than just perpetuating undeserved inequality, then you will be likely to think that certain economic systems are not simply more efficient but more intrinsically moral than others. (And, of course, people on the far left think this too.) I don’t see it this way at all. My primary concern about an economic system is only whether it is likely to produce outcomes which are desirable. So, if a system where people stand to gain a lot of money through patents produces more scientific breakthroughs than a system where people don’t have those incentives, all other things being equal, I think the system with the patents is superior. If you could make the argument that digital media piracy strongly disturbs the market in such a way that it makes it less likely that quality films and songs and books will be produced, then I would agree that copyright law should be enforced to dissuade people from pirating. But that isn’t the case as far as I can tell.

      • Amy G Dala Says:

        ” file-sharing is like plagiarism in the sense that, in both cases, the person who produces the work is not getting what they deserve.”

        ^^ that

      • Jim Says:

        Actually, Liza, I think you worded this a little strongly: “file-sharing is like plagiarism in the sense that, in both cases, the person who produces the work is not getting what they deserve.” Even if some notion of desert is able to be rescued, it seems clear that “desert” in these cases mean different things. One is recognition of creation, and the other is monetary compensation. I think one is easier to defend than the other, and, in that sense, I don’t think they’re really alike at all. So I think your criticism stands just fine even if some notion of desert is brought into play.

        • Liza Says:

          That’s a good point. This is entirely tangential, but I think the notion of “deserving” recognition of creation is problematic as well. I think we may have a moral obligation to acknowledge the record. I guess you could say that all people “deserve” the truth from others, but that isn’t normally the way we use the word “deserve.” Normally, people deserve things when they have done something to deserve them, and it doesn’t look like we have to do anything to be worthy of knowing the truth. It looks like other people have an obligation to tell the truth to us regardless of what we do. So, my question is whether deserving “recognition of creation” implies anything other than others not claiming your work as their own. If someone creates something significant it’s likely that they will be praised when other people learn that information. And, if nobody is lying, it’s likely that other people will learn that information as word of the accomplishment spreads. But, I don’t know that it’s fair to say that they “deserve” praise or public recognition anymore than it’s fair to say that they “deserve” money….the genetic assets and experiences that made their great work possible are still wholly undeserved.

          • Jim Says:

            Of course, that’s exactly what I meant. The idea of deserving praise or anything of that nature is much more in line with our normal notion of desert, the problem of plagiarism as being denied credit of creation is tied to something like honesty.

  3. James Gray Says:


    Do you think plagiarism has negative consequences?

    You said that you weren’t happy with utilitarianism, but you want desirable consequences. What alternative to utilitarianism do you think is more accurate?

    • Liza Says:

      I think plagiarism is wrong because it is deceptive. That’s not consequentialist at all.

      In my discussion of economic systems I was thinking about the Rawlsian difference principle. Differences in wealth are justified so long as the least well-off person in society is better off than they would be in some other economic system. Some people have said that this is a version of consequentialism, but I don’t agree. It’s based upon a hypothetical contract in the original position. So, we’re not saying that an inegalitarian economic system is justified by the consequences, we’re saying it’s justified by the hypothetical contract. When I say that I prefer the system that’s likely to get desirable results what I really mean is, if we have the relevant data that demonstrates that this kind of system is likely to lead to bad results, then this system is not the one that the unbiased agent in the original position is going to select.

      • James Gray Says:

        That makes sense, but then we still need to know if plagiarism laws will end up helping the least well off in terms of certain goods. I suppose we could just say it’s a right being protected under Rawls’s system.

        You said that you aren’t sure if copyright laws would benefit the least well off, but (if memory serves correctly) copyright protection might also be a right we would agree upon in the original position just because of some sort of intuitive response we get when confronted with the possibility of having such a right.

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