The Ethics of Piracy

I’ve been reading Intellectual Property is Common Property by Andreas Van Gunten over the last couple of weeks and it has seriously challenged many of my intuitions on the topic of piracy and intellectual property. Specifically, its been making me think about the ethics of piracy from my utilitarian and consequentialist perspective and where it fits exactly in my moral framework. I’ll be sharing those thoughts here. First, what is piracy? Let’s look at some modern definitions:

the unauthorized use of anothers production, invention, or conception especially in infringement of a copyright – Merriam Webster

the unauthorized reproduction or use of a copyrighted book, recording, television program, patented invention, trademarked product, etc. – Dictionary.com

I think a good place to begin is to question whether or not piracy is identical to theft. Theft is universally perceived as morally wrong for reasons we will soon explore. By comparing the two, we can gather insight into why we may or may not think piracy is morally equivalent. However, even if it is true that piracy is not equivalent to theft in every respect, logically it does not follow that piracy is morally unproblematic. This is important to keep in mind.

Why is it that humans universally perceive theft as morally wrong? From a utilitarian and consequentialist perspective this is because of the harm it causes through an immediate loss of value. If I were to steal a shovel from a shed, the owner of that shovel could no longer use it. The shovel can only be owned and used by one person at a time. Therefore by depriving the owner of their possession and their ability to use the shovel- I’ve clearly harmed them.

In economics, goods that can be used by only one consumer at a time are called rivalrous goods. Rivalrous goods are almost always tangible and will have either durable or non durable characteristics. The shovel in my previous example would be an example of a durable rivalrous good. Likewise an apple would be an example of a non durable rivalrous good because once an apple is eaten it is “used up” and can no longer be eaten by others.  There are also some examples of non-tangible goods that are rivalrous- notably domain names and radio bands. When people refer to theft they almost always mean the theft of rivalrous goods.

However, there are also non-rivalrous goods that exist where the cost of providing the good to an additional individual is zero. For example, Broadcast television is a non rival good because when a consumer turns on a TV set, this does not prevent the TV in another consumer’s house from working. Other examples of non-rival goods include scenic views, cinemas, national defense, clean air, street lights, and most notably intellectual property. When asking whether piracy is identical to theft, there’s another underlying question: Can non-rival goods be stolen?

https://sites.google.com/site/microeconomicsreview/_/rsrc/1296342336865/public-and-private/Chart.jpgImage via wikipedia

As Andreas Van Gunten explains in Chapter 2:

“A text in a book or a painting on a canvas are only rival-goods in the sense that the physical manifestation of the expression cannot be consumed more than once at any given time. The expression itself is non-rival. It can be consumed by many people at the same time as long as sufficient copies of the expression exist. The proponents of the current copyright system argue that the justification of intellectual property shares the same moral grounds as the justification of physical property.13 But only the physical medium has a rivalry character comparable to the physical goods by which control rights may be justified. As soon as the copying of the expression, which is what copyright law protects, does not need a physical medium anymore, which means that it can be done at zero or near zero cost, it loses its rivalry character. In other words, copying is not stealing, as the proponents of intellectual property rights try to convince us.

A printed book for example can only be read by one person at a time.14 If someone takes the book away from its owner, he can now read it and the original owner cannot. What we have here are the typical characteristics of a rival-good where the postulation of control rights may make some sense. But this changes completely as soon as a digital representation of the expression is available. In this case this would be an E-Book file or a website with the same text on it. If I possess an E-Book or have access to text on the World Wide Web, I am not limited in my enjoyment of the expression when someone else makes a copy and reads the text as well. As soon as the expression is no longer bound to a physical medium, and its manifestation is realised in a digital representation, the marginal costs for the second and subsequent copies are nearly zero and therefore it loses its rivalry character and its scarcity.”

So to answer the question: Can non-rival goods be stolen? The answer is no. However, non-rival transactions still seem to have the possibility of being unjust and morally problematic. Interestingly enough, this seems to be particularly true if the systems in place are unable to efficiently regulate and organize non-rival good distribution. In the same way, piracy is not identical to theft, but it can still cause harm to the producers of non-rival information goods because of the free rider problem.

If we were to accept these conclusions, it would seem to me that there would be multiple levels to piracy with different ethical implications. Consider the following four scenarios:

  1. Consume copyrighted movie without permission for private use
  2. Consume copyrighted movie without permission and edit the content for private use
  3. Consume copyrighted movie without permission, edit the content and share for public use
  4. Consume copyrighted movie without permission and share for public use

In each of these scenarios we are consuming copyrighted content without permission. The variables at play here are private vs public and edited vs original. Interesting to note is that scenarios 2 and 3 are actually legal in many cases under fair use in the United States, while the others are not. The mere act of editing copyrighted content makes it “fair.” Nevertheless, from an ethical standpoint scenarios 2 and 3 are ethically equivalent to scenario 1. Scenario 4 in contrast could be argued to be ethically worse for encouraging more piracy because it is sharing the original content with the public. Thus leading to a greater free rider problem.

At a deeper level, what we are really talking about when discussing the ethics of piracy is whether or not “intellectual property” is legitimate. If it is not legitimate- as Andreas Van Gunten asserts in his book- then it can be argued that piracy is simply a way of spreading creative works and increasing human innovation. Indeed, piracy could very well be a a neutral or ethical act.

My aim is not to try to solve these fundamental problems but to show that a society where intellectual property is common property has a better chance to prosper, independently of the question whether its basic values are more libertarian or more egalitarian. The premise is that the more cultural artefacts and the more scientific ideas are developed and produced, and the more freely human communication can happen, the more sustainable a society grows. This is the classical liberal argument for freedom of speech.Intellectual Property is Common Property, Andreas Van Gunten

If one accepts Guntens premise that in a society where intellectual property is common property and “more cultural artefacts and the more scientific ideas are developed and produced, and the more freely human communication can happen, the more sustainable a society grows,” then this is a society we ought to strive for from a utilitarian perspective.

Nevertheless, I can sympathize with those that are skeptical of Guntens views. They appear counter intuitive to many given the ingrained cultural status quo on copyright, patents, and other property laws. Furthermore, it may very well be the case that “possessing” intellectual property individually leads to a more prosperous society than one unable to do this. I remain agnostic.

Whatever your beliefs, I highly recommend checking out Guntens work. Piracy will continue to remain an interesting ethical question- one that is volatile to a technological environment and the laws we set in motion. Let’s see where it goes.

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Ethics and Economic Justice

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

I have been reading David Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons the past couple of months and I must say, it’s been a wild ride. I recommend it to anyone that subscribes to utilitarian ethics and having their world views pushed to the limit. It may seem farfetched to some, but I suspect Parfit will go down as one of the greats in the history of philosophy.

The book covers a variety of loosely related topics, but I want to focus on the type of utilitarianism he concludes from his arguments: Prioritarianism. Prioritarianism holds that the goodness of an outcome is a function of overall well being (Utilitarianism) with extra weight given to worse off individuals. Let’s look at an example to sharpen the distinction between the two.

Imagine a two-person society: its only members are Jim and Pam. Jim has an extremely high level of well-being, is rich, and lives a blissful life. Pam, by contrast, has an extremely low level of well-being, is in extreme poverty, and lives a hellish life.

Now imagine that we have some free resources ($10,000 for example) that we may distribute to the members of this society as we see fit. Under normal utilitarian circumstances, the $10,000 will generate more well-being for Pam than it will for Jim. Thus giving the money to Pam would be the morally correct choice. However, let’s imagine slightly different circumstances.

Jim, for whatever reason, even though he is already filthy rich and very well-off, would gain just as much well-being by receiving the $10,000 as Pam would. Suddenly utilitarians don’t have a preference on who gets the money because both Jim and Pam’s well-being would increase the same. Prioritarianism on the other hand would give the money to Pam, because she is worse off than Jim.

Furthermore, prioritarianism doesn’t act just as a tie breaker for well-being, sometimes it favors priority over a small amount of well-being in order to emphasize compassion. So if Jim were to somehow gain more well-being from the money than Pam, Prioritarianism still wouldn’t necessarily favor him. It is important to note that the amount of well-being traded for priority is arbitrary, but in most cases we can rely on common sense. But why is that?

Well there is a good reason: There are diminishing returns on the value of goods and money. Would Jim be able to tell the difference between having 1 billion dollars and 1.00001 billion dollars? No, he wouldn’t have a clue. In fact there have even been studies, including a prominent one by Princeton University Researchers, that money doesn’t buy happiness after one earns $75000 a year.

It is estimated that it is around this point where money is no longer a primary concern in ones life. People can focus on health, relationships and leisure’s without the stress of paying the bills at the end of the month, which is a real fear for millions of Americans.

If you subscribe to prioritarianism ethics, a certain amount of wealth redistribution becomes fundamental to a healthy and moral society. In a society where Walmart’s Walton family (one of many examples) owns more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined, millions of which are living in poverty and struggling to survive, can a rational person really argue that this disparity in wealth is ethical?

Welfare state capitalism may currently be the best economic model, but its inability to redistribute wealth fairly will continue to raise questions on how it can be improved. Economic justice isn’t about equality. It’s about removing the gross excess at the top to help prevent suffering for those at the bottom.

The Ethics of Torture

I am a utilitarian and a consequentialist. I believe we should try and maximize the well being of conscious creatures and minimize suffering. We can do this by measuring outcomes, which gives us the ability to distinguish between different moral actions and determine what is right and wrong.

I suspect most people would agree with my views at first glance, but many people grow cautious the second they hear any number of thought experiments. The ticking time bomb is a perfect example. For those that are unfamiliar, here it is:

“Suppose that a person with knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack, that will kill many people, is in the hands of the authorities and that he will disclose the information needed to prevent the attack only if he is tortured. Should he be tortured?”

In 99% of cases torture is wrong and immoral, but within the ticking time bomb scenario torture becomes ethically permissible in a utilitarian and consequentialist worldview.

In this thought experiment we know the outcomes of the scenario: If we torture the man, we will receive information on the bomb and save lives. If we don’t torture the man, the bomb will go off and people will die. The consequences of not torturing the man is worse then torturing the man because it increases suffering for more people.

What many people do not understand, however, is that just because this thought experiment is ethically permissible, doesn’t mean torture is practical in the real world. Why? It’s simple: in the thought experiment we have perfect information and outcomes, but in the real world there is a degree of uncertainty and randomness.

In the real world, the man could lie, not give the information, or give the information too late to be useful. The bomb may not even be real. Because of uncertainty, because we cannot know the outcomes, we don’t have the ability to distinguish whether torturing someone will actually save peoples lives. What we do know, however, is that torture will increase suffering for the individual.

Furthermore, I believe the majority of tortures are employed not as a method of extracting information, but as a method of terrorizing and subjugating a population. This enables state forces to control the establishment of innocence or guilt and the entire legal process altogether. In this context, and in 99% of cases, torture is immoral.

For sake of argument however, let’s say the government is utilitarian and they are considering torturing a man for the sole reason of saving lives and maximizing human well being. This would be just like the ticking time bomb scenario, but within the real world and limited information.

The question then becomes something different: Is the chance of maximizing well being for many people morally superior to increasing suffering for an individual? This is a difficult question because what is right and wrong depends entirely on whether the individual will give up the information in time. Moral luck is at play in this situation.

My intuition tells me the answer is no, but the higher the number of lives that are at risk, the more appealing yes becomes. Where do you draw the line? 10 lives? 100 lives? 1000 lives? An entire city? At some point, not torturing the individual seems to become immoral even if it’s only a chance to save them. And I would argue that it is.

So yes, the chance of maximizing well being for many people (at some arbitrary point) is morally superior to increasing suffering for an individual. This means that torture can be ethical given very specific circumstances. Discussion surrounding torture will continue for a long time, but I don’t think the world is as black and white as it appears.