I have been somewhat ambivalent about the issue of piracy, but when I did give it some thought, my view has been that if anyone takes something that the owner has not given them permission to take, they are doing something morally wrong. However, I have been swayed towards the opposite side- that piracy is acceptable- with the key reason being the gain it provides the masses. This week’s blog post describes my process of defection, catalysed by a heated discussion I had on the topic with my husband who strongly disagreed with my initial stance.
I took up the position that ‘Piracy is wrong’ having two main points to argue. My first point was that piracy is illegal. Actually, I am not really that fazed by this, and I had to concede pretty early on that there are so many things that are illegal in different places, such as euthanasia and same-sex marriage, whose supposed moral transgression is highly debatable. So, moving on to point two, which I thought would clinch my victory and close the debate. The law against piracy protects the owners of the intellectual property from having their property stolen and this is important as it allows people to gain profit from the time, effort and creativity that they put into producing their product. This argument, I believe, carries a lot of weight: their product is their property and hence downloading or copying it should be a crime. Debate closed? I’m afraid not.
My husband took a utilitarian standpoint on the issue of piracy. If we apply this ethical philosophy in which the happiness of the greatest number of people in the society is considered the greatest good and therefore morally right, then there is no denying that turning a blind eye to piracy, or removing the intellectual property laws altogether will achieve this. Yet, I was not convinced about it being morally right to take what is rightfully someone else’s because more people will benefit from it. I considered my career as a teacher- and imagined a group of four students going to a classmate’s bag, taking out his ziploc bag of four chocolate biscuits which he was going to have himself and consuming one each. Four people would be happy, one would be unhappy, but their act is still morally wrong. I cannot envisage the teacher explaining that she would not be reprimanding the four students based on the utilitarian nature of their act!
So, the question which came to my mind was whether piracy should be put in the same basket as this act of common theft so I decided to research the topic further. Many believe it is, like Australian actor John Jarratt, who calls piracy a cancer that is going to kill the Australian film industry and I am sure that many of you have seen the anti-piracy advertisement preceding films where downloading films is equated with stealing a car, a handbag or a television: Piracy: it’s a crime.
However, there is an opposing camp that believes there are clear differences between traditional theft and piracy, one being that piracy does not deprive the victim of using, sharing or disposing of their property as pointed out in this article, Is downloading really stealing? The ethics of digital piracy. The owner of a film can still use and benefit from the film despite it having been downloaded. This, I believe is critical and was the turning point for me.
Furthermore, illegal downloading has been seen to help, not hurt, some owners of intellectual property. According to the director of ‘The Game of Thrones’, piracy has been a good thing for the series; it’s helped in its exposure, increased its popularity and therefore its sales. And then, the clincher, the idea of the greater good, the utilitarian aspect of removing copyright and patents, to allow for accessibility to ideas and creative expression to all. The Pirate Party, Australia describes how copyright and patent laws create an enormous tax that our society has to pay thus denying the masses fair access to ‘the cultural and scientific works of our age’. Hence, in my opinion, piracy is one way to get around the current state that unfairly restricts accessibility.
So, armed with a bit more knowledge on the topic of piracy- my answer to the question, ‘Is piracy ever OK?’ is an emphatic, ‘Yes’.