The Complex Ethics of Piracy*
The Complex Ethics of Piracy
This talk aims to replace the "piracy is good" vs "piracy is theft" debate with a more nuanced understanding. It will investigate when piracy is selfish; when it is civil disobedience; whether it is ever constructive for cultural industries, or whether it is ever, as copyright holders argue, "theft".
I will conclude that each of these things is sometimes true about piracy, and that simple views are inadequate for understanding the ethical dimension of copyright infringement. Both pirates and copyright industries need to develop more subtle understandings of the morality of file sharing.
Despite a decade of the war on file sharing, copyright piracy continues to be a widespread social phenomenon.
Debates about the ethical status of piracy are often bipolar: copyright holders attempt to equate piracy with “theft”, while hacker and pirate groups argue that copyright is unsustainable and view piracy as good, inevitable, or promoting of renewal in cultural industries. Informally, some file sharers defend a position along the lines of “I pirate music, but then I buy CDs from the bands I like” or “I pirate major label music but buy independent artists’ CDs”.
This talk examines the coherence of these positions. Is piracy ever “theft” in an ethical sense? If it’s not theft, is it selfish? Is pirating major label music an ethically defensible form of civil disobedience? If it was ethical to engage in piracy as a form of protest, would that create an obligation to engage in piracy?
The conclusions are complex. The ethical status of piracy turns out to depend on difficult social choices about justice and aesthetic priorities, on what is being copied, and on who is copying it. On some theories, even if there are limited circumstances in which piracy is justified as a form of civil disobedience, many file sharers go too far with their actions. On the other hand, there may be circumstances in which there are weak ethical obligations to pirate things, and non-pirates could be said to be ignoring those obligations.
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Peter is a Senior Staff Technologist at EFF. He works on copyright, privacy, network neutrality and other Internet policy issues.