Monday, January 12, 2009

Digital Piracy

I have a friend who as far as I know is a capitalist/libertarian, yet who believes that digital piracy is ethically all right if not outright desirable. I find this position somewhat bizarre, and I personally try to avoid copyright-violating theft.

I am not at all opposed to open source. I think it's great to make your work available for free if you can and wish to, and I see a lot of benefits (in software and elsewhere) to doing so.

But, subject to certain limitations (the time limits of patents, fair use, etc.), I think that if you make something, you own it, and have the right to control its use. If I make a CD of the most awesome music ever and I am only willing to sell it for $10,000 per copy, that's my right, even if the price is outrageous.

But what if the record companies are screwing over the musicians such that the musicians hardly see a dime of record sales anyway? Well, frankly, that's not my problem. If Walmart negotiated an unfair deal with a Chinese manufacturer, that doesn't give me the right to steal cheap Chineses goods at Walmart, and I don't see this situation as being any different. Somehow or other, the musicians decided that signing with the label was a good move for them, and until I see evidence that they were coerced or that, for instance, the record labels have some means of preventing you from publishing your own music, it's all kosher as far as property rights go, and I can either buy the CD or do without.

I'm not an absolutist on this issue. I think comp CDs distributed between friends are great and mostly fall within fair use. And I don't have a huge ethical problem with someone copying something they could never afford, like a college student having an illegal copy of Windows. (It's technically wrong in my book, but causes minimal, if any, harm and is completely understandable.)

There is a difference between digital data and physical products, in that the former can be reproduced without cost. If I would never buy a Shania Twain CD but want to pirate one, then I'm not actually costing anyone anything - I'm unfairly using other people's labor, but at no cost to them. If I would never buy an axe but steal one from Home Depot instead, then I am costing them - they have one fewer axe. That difference is why I feel fairly lenient towards small, mild piracy. But it's not enough to make me decide that people who produce digital products shouldn't have the right to charge for their work.


Edward said...

I've had a few thoughts on this that I'd like to share.

When it comes to a license for a piece of intellectual property, there are four kinds of people:
1. People who don't want it.
2. People who would steal it if they could, but wouldn't pay for it.
3. People who would steal it if they could, but would pay for it if they couldn't.
4. People who would just pay for it anyway, without stealing.

Now, when an entity like a record company or a government is debating a technology or law regarding piracy, the ONLY group that matters is group three. Group two DOES NOT matter, unless the policy or technology somehow moves people from group two into group three -- after all, the line between those two groups is awful fuzzy and slippery. This is in contrast to real-world, non-copyable goods like shovels, cars, and chocolate bars, where groups two and three both matter.

Thus, typical ethical heritage regarding "theft" does not necessarily apply the same way it does in the physical world. I wish I heard more people keep the groups distinct, rather than lumping them together.

My two cents.

Tam said...

From the standpoint of actual outcomes, I agree that groups 2 and 3 are distinct and that theft by group 2 does not carry immediate harm. However, from an ethical standpoint, I don't think it makes a difference.

I actually believe that I have a right to charge for my products whether I suffer a loss when you enjoy them or not. I have the right to deny your ability to listen to my music if you won't pay me, even if enforcing that right doesn't lead to my getting paid. Why should you be able to reap the benefit of other people's labor against their will without giving them anything in return?

Also, Type 2 theft (theft of things you wouldn't pay for anyway) is only harmless in a limited sense. The ability to get music for free might inhibit my purchase of music even if I only ever steal music that I wouldn't pay for.

And since there is no way to distinguish between Type 2 and Type 3, even for your own self (since it's awfully easy to lie to yourself and say you'd never buy this product anyway, when you just might), I don't think the breakdown is very useful.

Edward said...

You've got three points here.

The first is interesting. You're saying that it's still you're right to determine what's done with your work, even if you don't get paid because of it. People have certain rights that they can enforce, even if they themselves gain nothing. I'm not ready to propose that people forfeit rights from which they don't gain, so you've got me.

For your second argument, are you saying that if I steal album X but wouldn't have paid for it, I'm less likely to buy album Y? If so, it would seem like you're saying that if you steal from any distributor, you are in a sense stealing from all of them.

I attempted to allow for your third argument by noting how policies change the sizes of the three groups, and noting that the line between the two groups is quite fuzzy and slippery.

Tam said...

For your second argument, are you saying that if I steal album X but wouldn't have paid for it, I'm less likely to buy album Y? If so, it would seem like you're saying that if you steal from any distributor, you are in a sense stealing from all of them.

Morally I think you're only stealing Album X. Album Y has no claims. But from a public policy perspective, not worrying about Group 2 (even if it were feasible) could still lead to losses.

And of course in the case of individual albums it gets to be a weird argument. But let's say I could listen to pirated, commercial-free radio. That would certainly reduce my consumption of non-pirated radio with commercials, even if the music on the pirated radio weren't quite as good.