Wednesday, January 04, 2012

On the ethics of piracy.

So, it seems that some version of PIPA/SOPA will become law in the United States. To no particular effect on those who can see the technical loopholes a mile away, but it's a nice illustration of the importance of having lobbyists promoting your interests in the capital. Similarly, we'll get some sort of bastardized version of same when the Conservatives revise the copyright law. Again, to no particular effect, but it's a nice illustration of the weaknesses of Westminster "majority" Parliaments. (Two different systems, two different problems. Ah, politics.)

I'm firmly in the camp of those who think there's no problem here to be solved. Media piracy exists because there's a significant underserved segment of the market. If media companies bothered to provide products and services that would suit the interests of that segment, then piracy would become a minor irritant at best.

It's often argued, though, that there's a fundamental ethical problem with piracy. Exactly what the problem is seems hard to articulate.

Sometimes, it's claimed that piracy is the same as theft, and as theft is wrong, so piracy is wrong. Two problems here. First, the analogy is obviously bad. Pirated material is copied, not taken, which makes it not equivalent to theft. Second, it's not true that theft is always wrong. Exceptions are numerous (e.g., for self-protection), so there is no general principle about the wrongness of theft that can be deployed here.

This position is sometimes revised to the claim that the real theft is the loss of income or sales due to piracy. Again, this is a terrible analogy: losing sales is in no sense like theft. If it were, then every time someone shopped around for a bargain, stores who didn't get that person's business would have been robbed.

The more interesting version of this point is that content creators are entitled to income from their endeavours. This is probably true, but true in general -- that is, everyone, including content creators, is entitled to income from their endeavours. The problems come in pointing out exactly what the creators are entitled to in return for their work. If the claim is "enough to live on", then I am sympathetic, but note that this should apply to everyone -- content creators are not special here. If the claim is "as much as possible", then the earlier point about market failure seems to come into play. In a competitive market, it's the producer's job to satisfy consumer demand, not insist that consumers consume whatever the producer feels like making.

So, there's something to the "piracy is theft" line, but only when it's elaborated to something like: "everyone is entitled to enough income to live on, which creative people try to earn through creative works, and piracy negatively impacts on that ability". And even then, it only shows that creative people need to either insist on a guaranteed minimum income, presumably from the state, or acknowledge that the market for creative work is changing, and adapt to it. There is no moral claim here against the pirates.

A different sort of claim that could be made is that copying a creative work is itself morally wrong. This is just not true. There's nothing morally wrong with reproducing a painting, song, or what have you for one's own benefit. Every time I find a comic on the web that I enjoy, and save a copy to my hard drive for future reference, I have made a copy for my own benefit. How on earth is that immoral?

The only possible justification I can see is a tragedy of the commons type argument: that when everyone is making copies for their own benefit, it leads to damaging consequences. Even granting the consequentialist frame, this doesn't put any responsibility on the shoulders of the pirates. After all, the point of the tragedy of the commons is that no one person bears responsibility for the bad outcome. It's the group as a whole -- which, in this case, would include the content creators as well as the pirates.


William Hayes said...

ADHR wrote: "a tragedy of the commons type argument: that when everyone is making copies for their own benefit, it leads to damaging consequences."

Doesn't a tragedy of the commons argument relate to something that is owned by all (in common) or (some allow) owned by none?

You seem to be applying the term to a situation in which the content copied is owned by a only some (a small number, perhaps only one).


ADHR said...

The original tragedy of the commons argument -- grazing animals and a meadow -- does, but the logic doesn't.

"Tragedy of the commons type argument" is loose talk. Strictly, it's a collective action problem: any one person copying a creative work causes negligible harm, if any; many people copying a creative work (allegedly) causes serious harm. Responsibility properly belongs to the group, not any individual member.

William Hayes said...

I accept your caveat and don't at all object to your invoking Hardin's concept to what you term a collective action problem.

Perhaps I ought to have said merely that the ethical component of your comment (its appeal to universality) seems more readily (or should I say more easily?) characterized as Kantian.

William Hayes said...

More importantly, progressives have an opportunity (an obligation) to weigh in on discussions of subjects that are characterized as tragedy of the commons-type issues. Witness this:

"the commons -- the money available for all public and private sector spending, on everything -- has been laid waste: diverted, a few dollars at a time, into the gaping maw of the health care beast." David Harlow

Harlow and other conservative opinionators in healthcare are seizing this concept, much as opinionators in industry have seized the concept of sustainability--see full-page ads by corporations in Canadian Geographic and others. The consequence, following a Gresham's Law in the realm of ideas, is a depreciation of the value of ideas. O tempora! O mores!

SnArthur-Baker said...

There is a line between stealing a material item such aa CD's or DVD's and the copying of said materials. It may be a fuzzy line but still a line. But there is still some ethics involved here. Similar to when a thief takes somnething he has stolen to a pawnshop. Is it anymore or less ethical for the pawnshop to take that item at a cheep rate knowing that most likely it was obtained illegally? We may donwload a song or CD for free and we may not have been the one to originally obtain and start didtributing it but there are still some ethical gray areas in the assumption that we have no moral obligatino to hold ourselves accountable.

ADHR said...

There's no real similarity there. Buying something and making it available for copy is nothing like stealing something and pawning it. Come on.