The Moral Argument In Favor Of File Sharing?

from the is-it-wrong? dept

I've discussed in the past the question of whether or not there's even a moral question to consider when it comes to copyright, if you can first show a situation where everyone is better off (i.e., if the end result of content being shared, willingly, is better for both the content creators and consumers, why should morals even be a question?). Separately, I have made clear that I do not engage in any sort of unauthorized file sharing -- noting that it is illegal and, I personally believe, wrong. Some people have pushed back on that latter point, suggesting that my labeling it as "wrong" is, in fact, a moral statement as well. A couple months ago (yes, I'm slow, but I'm catching up on some old "saved" submissions), SteelWolf sent over some thoughts on why file sharing is not wrong, and why there's actually a moral argument in favor of sharing:
It is through sharing that we develop a culture and advance humanity. Creative works like art and music are, at their core, about sharing with others. They tell stories, reveal personalities, or comment on the world in ways that others can appreciate, forming a part of our culture as they are spread around. Gregor Mendel's discoveries about genetics had no value while they were gathering dust on the monastery bookshelf; it is only when those discoveries were shared with the world that they became vital.

Infinite Goods Should Be Shared

Say you have something that is good for others, and it is infinite, so you will not lose any of it by giving some away. I don't think it's a stretch to say that most people's idea of morality would dictate that they should share that thing. In general, information is something that can be seen as a public good. If somebody has a discovery or an idea, it costs nothing to give it away, it is not scarce, yet it can potentially benefit the world.
On this, I absolutely agree -- but it is much more the argument for why the content creators themselves should share their content first. And that's where things get tricky. I do think it makes sense to share content. I think that content creators would find themselves better off if they share their works (and do so strategically, in combination with a business plan that takes advantage of it). But what if the original creator doesn't want the content shared? Then what?

SteelWolf argues that there's a moral imperative to share, but again, this seems to apply more to the content creator, than those downstream:
Faced with an infinity of good things in the form of content information, why would somebody chose not to give it away? What is gained by hoarding something that can help others and costs nothing to share? Let's say you figure out that you can protect people from a deadly virus, say, influenza, with a vaccine. While it costs something to manufacture physical vaccines and mail them to everybody in the world, sharing the information behind it is free. Others can chose whether or not they want to invest money in creating their own, but sharing has given them the option to do so where before it did not exist. Faced with this situation, who would chose to let thousands of people perish by denying them even the potential opportunity to save themselves?

Yet this is exactly the choice many people are making in the name of "intellectual property." They would rather see others suffer than share something infinite with them, desperately clinging to business models that depend on scarcity. In the 21st century, ideas, information, digitized content are all infinitely available. For these things, the Star Trek replicator has been made, and it's time to use that as a stepping stone to greater things.

Faced with an infinite supply of information that can potentially benefit billions of people, I chose to share. Those who try to hoard this information are both attempting to drink the ocean and doing wrong.
While I think this is interesting, and at times compelling, in the end I'm still not convinced there's a moral component here, except potentially for the creator/innovator. But, at the same time, I still believe that we're better off taking the moral discussion out of it. Perhaps a moral argument like the one above is helpful to convince some, but it leads right back to the economic discussion, where some will ask why anyone would bother in the first place, if they're just told they need to give it away for moral reasons.

Instead, I'm more convinced by economic arguments that show greater opportunity in sharing infinite goods, in that it decreases the cost of creation, promotion and distribution, while making it easier reach a larger audience for selling scarce products. Again, if you can make the economic argument, and then throw in the moral benefits of spreading information on top of it, that makes sense. But a purely moral argument still falls a bit short for me. Still, I'm sure it will lead to an interesting discussion here.

Filed Under: copyright, file sharing, morals


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Nov 2009 @ 6:14am

    Re: why bother?

    Before anyone thought of copyright, it was completely impossible to copy music without actually reperforming it oneself. For other works, copying was tedious, error prone, and extremely expensive (having to be done by hand, often with large groups of people being involved in the process, and generally simply not worthwhile for anybody who was not affiliated with the creator of the work). When technological devices that enabled more accurate copying of an artist's work, the most notable example being the printing press, were invented, it was seen that a new legal framework was required in order to continue to protect the creator's interests, and so copyright as created. But one who sees copyright as only protecting the creator's and publisher's interests is not looking at the larger picture... for without copyright, there would be little incentive for people to create and publish anything that they did not want or expect anybody else to freely copy. Whether this is selfish on the part of such creators is irrellevant to the fact that the number of creative works coming from such people would diminish. The number of works coming from people who want/expect their works to be freely copied would remain constant, but in such a climate, one would eventually find that the signal to noise ratio would sink to practically unusable levels... the volume of quality works would simply be far too low for most people to easily find them or be notified of their existence amongst an overwhelming volume of tripe, and the general public would a sharp decrease in the volume of readily available new artistic works... which I think would be a huge loss to society. One might consider the scenario I've painted above to be an unlikely turn of events, but the realities of the world that we live in suggest to me that is almost _exactly_ what would happen without copyright.

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