Ethics and Copyright, Part 1: Thief! Thief!

Lyn Hawthorn:

When discussing the topic of respecting copyrights vs. infringing upon them, proponents of copyright protection often make their case from a moral or ethical perspective. Say what you want about free speech or economics, the assertion goes, an illegal download is just wrong.

As somebody interested in both philosophy and copyright reform, I find this question a fascinating thing to explore! So in this series of posts, I’ll construct arguments and counterarguments about the idea that copyright infringement is a moral wrong, and see where it leads. From my brainstorming so far, my rough thesis is thus: ethical arguments about copyright infringement collapse into economic arguments about the viability of post-scarcity business models. If it can be shown that monopolizing the right to copy is the only sustainable way to promote the arts and technology, then to infringe on copyright is a moral failure. But if culture and business can thrive as well or better using some other way of making money from what’s termed “intellectual property,” then infringement is not morally blameworthy.

My philosophical skills are very rusty, by this point; I graduated with my Philosophy major more than eight years ago, now, and even then it was only a bachelor’s degree! So my argumentation and my understanding of different theories of morals will likely have terrible flaws. Let me know! I’m itching to reveal what of these ideas are defensible and what not, which can only happen in the fires of criticism.

By way of a warm-up exercise, here’s a light Socratic dialogue from a typical starting point: the accusation that infringers of copyright are “thieves”. Tani-ro will speak for the infringers, Kali-ra for defenders of copyright.

Tani-ro: When you say that an unauthorized download is “stealing” or that somebody who infringes is a “thief”, you’re obviously not making a legal argument. The law treats infringement very differently from burglary or robbery or bank fraud. If not a legal point, then, what’s the thrust of the accusation?

Kali-ra: It’s morally equivalent to stealing. You’re taking something that doesn’t belong to you, something you haven’t paid for as you ought.

Tani-ro: These things seem very different, though. In the sense of “taking” that applies to theft, one person loses an object to the thief. I had a fine vase; a burglar broke in and hauled it away in a sack; now I have no vase. But in the case of infringement, the perpetrator has only made a copy. The original still remains. In what sense “taking,” then?

Kali-ra: You’re depriving the creator or seller of the thing of rightful income. The copying’s supposed to take place after a transaction where money passes from you to the author. If you make the copy without the payment, the creator comes up short–in the end you take away their ability to buy other goods, maybe even pay rent!

Tani-ro: That can’t be the whole story, though. If “depriving of income” were theft, then any number of actions resulting in less money for the author would also count as theft. Writing a bad review of the work that dissuades other people from buying it would be theft. Choosing to buy a competitor’s product instead of yours would be theft. My having this conversation with you, when I could be out buying any of myriad copyrighted works, would be theft! I think you do not consider these things to be thievery; how then is infringement different?

Kali-ra: You glossed over the “rightful” part. By acquiring the work, you’ve incurred a debt to its creator. With the review, or the purchasing decision, or whatever, you aren’t in a situation where you owe the author anything. But as soon as you take the step of downloading, you have an obligation to pay back the creator according to the price they’ve set on the work. By infringing, you renege on that obligation. If you don’t think the word “thief” fits that, then take “cheat”, or “oathbreaker”, or “cad” instead–those work too!

…and here I think we have arrived at the copyright proponent’s strongest position. In future articles, I’ll try to explore just what sort of debt or duty is incurred in consuming media, and see if Kali-ra has the right of it here!

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2 thoughts on “Ethics and Copyright, Part 1: Thief! Thief!

  1. Joe Thomas says:

    I like the idea of this series! I know you and I largely agree on the substance of copyright issues (which is to say that we’re both pretty copyleft, if you go with that term), but I’m a big proponent of having substantive positions flowing from clearly articulated sources. Maybe you and I (and others) actually have really different ideas about WHY we should have more copy-left type laws!

    I think an angle that I’d be interested in hearing about is the idea of culture. Nobody owns culture, but lots of people own pieces of culture? Weird. The law says that someone can “own” a song such that I can’t download it without paying (unless they give permission), but they can’t own it so much that I’m not allowed to sing it at an open mic night. I can’t get a movie without paying, but I also can’t display it publicly. Why the difference? There’s some real philosophy/ideology to grapple with here, I think.

    I agree that this first piece here seems like the copyright defenders’ best piece of argument from a philosophical point of view. “People deserve to be compensated for their work and you are not compensating them but you are benefiting from their work” is, not surprisingly given my politics, a pretty solid argument to me.

  2. SabreCat says:

    Thanks, I’m pretty psyched about seeing where this leads!

    Copyleft: It’s a fun term, and one I do use sometimes, especially when talking about creating a work with a permissive license. As a political leaning I tend to like the term “Free Culture” tho!

    Speaking of culture: ideas noted! Some of that hadn’t crossed my mind yet, so thanks for the input. The thicket of permissions in the law as it stands does give rise to a lot of situations not intuitive to the casual observer.

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