UCSB Philosophy Blog

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pirates and Pirating

Indeed we are not dead. I posted a little something on my personal blog about Internet pirating:


It's somewhat philosophy-related as it involves ethics. I didn't discuss the ethics of it there too much, but maybe we can here!

So, here's a condensed version of what I wrote, which focuses on the parts regarding the ethics of it all.


The music industry, software industry, film industry, etc. are all quite concerned about so-called Internet pirating (acquiring products digitally via the Internet without paying for them). Allow me to give you a rundown of how this goes. You want the latest Fitty-cent album, right? Why go and pay for it, like a sucker, when you can just download it for free? (Note: you could also download it and pay for it, but again, sucker.) As the story goes, the really crooked used to just go into the store and steal it, but now that it's so much easier and discrete online, many more people are getting into it. Software companies are especially worried now because their products sell for hundreds of dollars new and their market is probably a bit smaller compared to the average $15 to $20 for the latest Fitty-cent album, which, sadly, has apparently the market of the entire world (possibly to infinity and beyond).

I know pirating is characterized as flat-out stealing and, thus, is said to be just wrong. However, I just think that there are situations in which consumers may justifiably do it. I know it's a form of stealing and that it's illegal. But, we all seem to think that some forms of stealing are ethical (e.g., Robin Hood style stealing... you know, if it's for a greater good, etc.). And, frankly, I don't much abide by the law if I disagree with it... that is, unless I think there's a good chance I might get caught. Besides, who doesn't do a California stop every once in awhile?

See, us consumers don't have very many ways to tell companies that they are charging more than we're willing to pay. We can refuse to buy the product. But some of us are too weak-willed to not pay for the over-priced product, because we want it so badly. Why can we not communicate our disapproval by pirating the product? That way, not only do we not buy the product, but we cause a scene by pirating it. Clearly, pirating has gathered their attention. Some people think that pirating is just childish stealing. But I say it is consumers taking advantage of what little resources they have to fight back companies who are trying to screw them. So, these industries can continue to ignore their bread and butter (the consumer) or they can listen to us and pull their act together.

Basically, large companies have way too much control over consumers in the U.S. for this to be a true capitalistic market. So, we are being over-charged for products that we really want, because we can't make them lower prices or increase the quality of the product. Why can't we exercise the very little power that we have to try and balance the market? I think most pirates don't want everything for free, they just aren't willing to pay that much for that kind of product. But I can only speak for myself. These are my motives and thoughts. I'm sure there are those out there who will pirate no matter what, just for the fun of it. However, I think the majority of people will support companies they respect. And if you don't, I suggest you do.

So I don't think pirating is inherently good or justified. I just think that in certain circumstances one may be justified in doing it. I'm just tired of corporations having so much control and leeway in this country. And when consumers get a little bit of an advantage to try and even the playing field, we are struck down as immoral. Well, that may be true, but many of us are merely responding to similar treatment. In short, they rip us off, so why can't we do the same?


I'm interested in people's responses. I don't want to necessarily get into whether this is a Kantian or Utilitarian type of view, etc. I'm more interested in seeing how this fits with the hodgepodge of ethical views that we all actually practice. I know it has quite the eye-for-an-eye ring to it, which seems to have problems as a complete world-view. And perhaps this isn't so much about ethics in general, but about justice/fairness. I dunno. I don't claim to specialize in ethics!


  • At 4:44 PM, Blogger Luke Manning said…

    Thanks for the post, Josh. I think one interesting question it raises is whether what's commonly called "pirating" is a type of action we should consider intrinsically wrong. Sorry about all the qualifications in that statement; I'll try to spell it out a little better (although I don't have elegant terminology for any of this). Those of us with some deontological commitments tend to think that stealing is intrinsically wrong. Are the so-called "pirate" activities stealing? I think that's a substantial and difficult question. Semi-intuitively, at least part of what's wrong about stealing is that the victim has some prima facie right to possess the object stolen, and you violate that right by causing them no longer to possess the object. That doesn't happen when what's "stolen" is an electronic file. Arguably, it doesn't even make sense to talk of stealing an electronic file (like an mp3), because electronic files are most easily categorized as abstract objects (nominalistic obstinacy notwithstanding).
    Here's a little computer metaphysics, which you can probably skip if you're already willing to buy that files are abstract objects. The process of downloading creates magnetic patterns on your disk that, when interpreted in the intended way, represent (at the most basic level of file structure) a sequence of numbers. This sequence, given the context of the file system structure, represents a set of data that I think is what we commonly call a file. Depending on what format the file is (analogous to the language we should take an inscription to be in), the data could represent text, sounds, images, video, or something else (it may not even straightforwardly represent, in the case where the file is executable). So essentially, the file is an abstract object (either the sequence of numerical bits, or the pair of that sequence and the convention(s) for interpreting it), and the magnetic arrangement on your disk is a file only in the sense that we take it as representing that abstract object. This seems reasonable to me (right now, anyway).
    Here's the point: Nobody possesses abstract objects, and thus we cannot take them away from someone who possesses them. So we cannot steal them.
    However, that doesn't rule out the possibility that so-called "pirating" is an instance of some other action that's intrinsically bad. I think a better case can be made that it's violation of copyright, i.e., an entity's right to control the creation of instances (or representations of) an abstract work (there's room for debate about whether certain works count as abstract; to a first approximation: if a reproduction would be "the real thing" and not "a mere reproduction", then it's abstract). It's intrinsically wrong to violate someone's rights, when those rights are moral, not simply legal. It is dubious to the max that a record company has a moral right to anything, though they may have legal rights the violation of which would violate the moral rights of some members of that company. But it's also dubious that a company could have legal rights (with the appropriate sort of moral backing) to control the circumstances of the creation of representations of any abstract objects that were created (yes, Virginia, abstract objects can be created, although what that means is hard to say) BY OTHERS (e.g., musicians).
    Point being, if anybody has a *moral* right to control the copying of something, it's the creator, not the publisher/promoter. And I'm not so sure that even the creator has a *moral* right to that. Arguably, some principle of justice or fairness would entail that THEY (alone) have a right to be properly recognized/praised/blamed for their creation, rather than someone *else* who copies it and claims it as their own. But the bad thing in that situation seems to be the other person claiming it as their own, which is not present in "pirating" cases. Perhaps a principle of justice or fairness would also entail that everyone get what they deserve, but it's far from obvious that anyone *deserves* to be *paid* (or compensated in some analogous way) for creating an abstract work (by those who observe or benefit from the work, or as part of a general endowment for the arts, or however else). They might deserve something or other, but it's rather implausible to think that they deserve monetary compensation for each "copy" of the work that's produced. Perhaps one could argue for that, but right now I don't see how it would work. So perhaps copying a file that is someone's work (or is something like a derivative work, in the case of lossily compressed files) isn't an instance of any act type that's intrinsically wrong. I never thought it was, anyway, and nobody who's sane did either, this fact being reflected in our legal right to fair use of works in certain media, which includes copying (at least for backup purposes). Now I'm veering close to conflating distinct cases (fair use of something "purchased" versus duplication and dissemination to others who did not "purchase" the work), though the companies Josh is talking about conflate those cases as well, so depending on what we're trying to establish, it may not matter. But if we're really trying to figure this issue out, and not just determine whether (e.g.) the RIAA is in the right (which they so obviously are not, considering the patently insane positions they hold), then the question remains whether the difference between these two cases is sufficient to make one impermissible while the other is permissible. But I don't have the mental energy to go into that right now.
    I don't know, these "piracy" issues are very mixed up, and I fear I'm not making it any clearer by intermixing my concerns about metaphysics, logic, and ethics in this way. But I think some of what I'm trying to say gets at what you're concerned about, so perhaps that's enough for now.

  • At 11:00 PM, Blogger Josh said…

    Thanks for the comment, Luke! (exclamation point LW-style)

    My quasi-justification for pirating definitely would raise issues for the hard-core deontologist/non-consequentialist. But people, in general, do have ethical views which mix both consequentialist and non-consequentialist views. So, yeah, a key question is whether piracy of the form we're discussing is really stealing. If I have things straight, then the following is the situation: If piracy is stealing and one thinks that stealing is intrinsically wrong, then we're in trouble, regardless of my blog attempting to justify it.

    However, I think I was trying to essentially make a case for piracy, even if piracy is stealing. I was, thus, considering stealing as not being intrinsically wrong (cf. Robin Hood cases and whatnot). But it is an interesting question. Luke is pointing then at possible ways to sway the hard-core deontologist into thinking that piracy may be okay, because it's not stealing. The fact that these are digital copies of abstract objects here makes it all the more difficult to discern. Luke brings up a good point that anti-pirates (so to speak) often, probably deliberately, ignore. And that point is that pirating is not flat-out, run of the mill stealing. To illustrate: I remember a commercial a while back with Lars Ulrich from Metallica running into a kid's room, slapping Napster stickers on his stuff, and then taking it away, claiming something like "Now it's mine!" The better commercial would be Lars enter the room with a duplicator machine of some sort, make a duplicate of the kid's TV or whatever, slapping a Napster sticker on it, and then taking away (or "stealing") the duplicate!

    However, we must keep in mind that people do have rights to certain abstract items. Consider intellectual property rights, etc... not that Luke was ignoring that. This could be discussed way more, but I guess my point is just that piracy could still be some form of stealing, even if it's like taking duplicates of abstract stuff. The creators, after all, generally have some rights to even abstract duplicates. (Note: Luke is doing a job of keeping moral issues separate from legal issues, which is also extremely important in this debate. Perhaps I am not doing so well. Perhaps Luke's point is that these rights of which I speak are mere legal and not moral, or something to that effect. It is important to keep in mind that what is illegal is not necessarily immoral.)

    I don't have much brain power left right now either. I just wanted to say that some good points were made and that we should continue blogging about this, because it's interesting to see what people think!


  • At 2:58 PM, Blogger Dr. Funk said…

    I find your argument about consumers using piracy as a means of signaling to producers that their prices are too high uncompelling. Can't I use this reasoning to justify all sorts of stealing? Sorry, GM, you're charging me too much so I'll just go steal a car in order to "balance the market".

    My belief is that it is not altruistic to download .mp3s, since the adverse effects on the industry outweigh the benefit of my own being able to enjoy the song. However, the difference is small and I think that many highly altruistic people (self-included) will choose to pirate nonetheless. Arrrr.

  • At 7:12 PM, Blogger Josh said…

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    Regarding Dr. Funk's comment:

    I don't think that my reasoning can be used to justify all sorts of stealing. There are factors specific to this case that set it apart from other acts of stealing. I haven't spelled out those factors that much, but some are clearly implicit.

    For starters, mp3s (or whatever) are abstract objects protected by intellectual property rights. This distinguishes them from stealing a car from GM quite a bit. The car is a concrete object protected by laws against grand theft auto. Secondly, the car is worth a lot more. To oversimplify and to put it crudely: a few mp3s won't cause the company as much loss as a few cars. This brings out the highly utilitarianistic character to my reasoning, but so be it.

    I think the core of Dr. Funk's worries is something to consider and it is likely that other people would have similar thoughts as well. However, I do want to be clear that my (quasi-)argument should not be taken so as to justify stealing cars and such. I have in mind it justifying stealing only given specific circumstances like Robin Hood kinds of stealing, etc.


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