Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Ethics of File Sharing and Media Piracy

I've been thinking about file sharing and media piracy lately, and the issues involved with it do not seem to have been as rigorously broken down as I would like.

So is file sharing wrong, or is it permissible? And if it's wrong, why and it what ways is it wrong? Here are some possible answers...

Stealing is wrong, and file sharing is stealing, so file sharing is also wrong. But I think there could be reason to think that file sharing is not stealing, or at least, not stealing the way that is commonly used to argue against file sharing.

Here's what the video says:

You wouldn't steal a car, you wouldn't steal a handbag, you wouldn't steal a television, you wouldn't steal a movie. Downloading pirated films is stealing, stealing is against the law, PIRACY IT'S A CRIME

But I don't know... if I was watching a DVD at home, I'd feel a lot differently and be a lot more upset if someone came and took my DVD from me, compared to if someone just made a copy of my DVD. I'd still be able to enjoy my copy of it if someone made a copy of it, but I would not be able to still enjoy it if someone stole it.

Of course, at this point, this doesn't show file sharing to be permissible. I'm just trying to show that there may be reason to think it's not the same as stealing, or at least, not the same as going into a store and stealing a DVD.

Here is another case that I think might be relevant to consider. Think about the miracle of the multitude that Jesus was said to perform in the Bible (for the point I'm making, it does not matter if this event actually happened). In the miracle, he turned five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food to feed thousands. For the sake of argument, let's say Jesus bought the initial fives loaves and two fish from a vendor.

Why do people tell this story to show how good Jesus was? Why don't people tell this story to show that Jesus is giant thief? If making copies of a CD/DVD and giving them to thousands of people (through file sharing) is stealing, then it's also stealing when Jesus made thousands of copies bread and fish and gave them to thousands of people. And so (using modus tollens for those interested in the logical terms of argument), if the miracle of the multitude was not stealing, then file sharing is not stealing.

But there are other possibilities for why file sharing could be wrong. It could be something like...artists deserve being paid for their work, and by pirating media, artists are not getting what they deserve, and since it's wrong to be the cause of someone not getting what they deserve, it's wrong to pirate media.

But really, how much do artists deserve for their music? Vanilla Ice made $1 million a week for 15 weeks with one of his CDs. Not to rip too much on Vanilla Ice, but come on, his music is not good enough to deserve him getting $15 million. Think of it like this, if Vanilla Ice deserves $15 million for his CD, then we should think that someone who works harder than him deserves more than $15 million dollars. The average salary of a teacher in Minnesota is $47,393. This means that a teacher would have to work over 300 years to make as much as Vanilla Ice did with his CD. This should tell us that either Vanilla Ice got way more then he deserved, or teachers need to start being paid several millions, because there is no way it was harder for Vanilla Ice to write a CD than it would be for the average teacher to work for 300 years, and if working harder than someone means you deserve more money than that person, a TON of people need to be paid more because they deserve it.

To give someone like Vanilla Ice what they deserve, I'd say $1000 for every hour he put into making the CD is already giving him more than what he deserves. And once he makes that much money, any of his CDs being pirated cannot be said to be wrong because they are stopping him from getting what he deserved. He'd gotten what he deserved for his music a looooong time before reaching the $15 million mark. One would need a different argument than desert to say why he should have the entire $15 million (Note: The entitlement theory by Robert Nozick would probably be a good place to start in arguing why Vanilla Ice should have all $15 million).

Another type of argument used to say media piracy is wrong is based on the consequences. If people keep file sharing, artists won't make music or movies anymore. I don't find this argument very strong though, because if you want to look at the consequences, a lot more happiness will come from people able to file share than there will by not allowing file sharing. Further, this argument only has weight if it's actually the case that people will no longer make movies and music. But if this won't actually happen (and it most likely won't happen despite the existence of piracy), then it's not a real reason to stop file sharing.

One of the last arguments I'll mention deals with the rights of the artists. When media is pirated, the rights of the artist who created the media are being infringed upon.

Let's say they have this right, how far does it extend?

Some things to consider when thinking about any arguments about the wrongness of file sharing:

What about watching a DVD with some friends at home, or playing a CD at a party? Aren't your friends getting to enjoy the products of these artists without having paid for it? What if the artists said that you cannot play a DVD for your friends if they have not paid for the DVD too, or you can't play a CD at a party if your friends have not paid for it too? Would it be wrong or stealing to watch the DVD/play the CD with those friends around?

What if the artists said you need to pay every time you listen to a song, or play their movie?

What if you voluntarily start playing the song in your head? Aren't you again enjoying their product and shouldn't you have to pay for doing that?

Further, if we are supposed to start thinking of music and movies and being the same thing as products like handbags, then we should be allowed to return a CD/DVD when an artist makes a bad album or movie in the same way that if we buy a handbag and it's a bad handbag, we can return it. Part of the motivation for piracy is that if you pay for a CD/DVD and it sucks, then you're out of luck for seeing that money ever again.

And just a final thought to consider. Many people think there are basically four options: Buy the product, use the product; don't buy the product, use the product (pirating); buy the product, don't use the product; don't buy the product, don't use the product.

However, for a lot of people, it's really just two options: Don't buy the product, use the product (pirating); don't buy the product, don't use the product. This means that for a lot of people, either way the artists won't be getting more money because people will either pirate the product for free, or if they can't pirate it, they still won't buy it and won't use the product.

So what artists should be asking themselves more is this: If I'm not going to be making money anyway, would I rather have these people at least listening to my music and watching my movies, or would I rather not make money and have no one listening to my music and watching my movies?

Despite this post, I still have the feeling that there is probably something wrong with media piracy. Think of this post as an introduction into the search of the morality of file sharing and media piracy and not the final word on the subject.

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