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Piracy does remove the original

I don't know how I feel about media and software piracy, from an ethical perspective. I'm pretty sure I understand the (English) law, to the extent that it understandable. As a law student I spent many happy hours arguing about the circumstances in which a crime has been committed. I'm fortunate enough to work in a sector of the IT industry which is not significantly impacted -- positively or negatively -- by unauthorized copying. I have sufficient funds that I don't have to resort to it myself. So, to some extent, I don't have a dog in this fight.

However, there is one form of argument that I see circulating on the Internet, that I think is wrong-headed, and should be resisted. If you want to indulge in media piracy that's between you and your conscience, but you should at least do it with a full understanding of the arguments that are being used to justify it.

The wrong-headedness stems from a widespread misapprehension that if you remove a label of disapprobation, you remove the disapprobation itself.

Let me explain.

A common slogan used by folk who seek to defend their media piracy is this one (and many variants of it):

"Imagine your car was stolen, and it was still there in the morning."

This slogan is effective because our common-sense understanding of the word "steal" does not really allow it to be used in situations where the property in question is not removed. Media piracy can't be "theft", the slogan-writers argue, because the item alleged to be stolen is not actually removed. The owner, apparently, still owns it.

Most people in the modern world would accept, I think, that theft is a Bad Thing. Some people would temper their disapprobation in cases of theft of essentials by people are in genuine, intractable hardship. If I steal to feed my starving children then, we might accept, that's understandable. It's not actually immoral.

But, for the most part, "theft" is a term of disapprobation. When we accuse somebody of theft, we've made an ethical judgement, as well as a legal one. Theft is illegal, perhaps, not only because it threatens the good ordering of society but because it's wrong in some way. Nobody likes to be called a thief.

Hence the slogan. The implicit message is that media piracy is not unethical, because it can't be assigned the label of disapprobation "theft". In the same way that your car isn't stolen if it's still there in the morning, your right to deal with your intellectual property hasn't been "stolen" if you still have it.

What's wrong with this argument?

Nothing. It's a perfectly should argument, so far as applying the label is concerned. Media piracy is not theft. In the UK, it doesn't fall under the definition of "theft" in the Theft Act 1968 -- not neatly, anyway. In the UK, a copyright infringer is not, in a legal sense, a "thief".

There are many ethical pejoratives in the English language. We may call someone a murderer, a rapist, a fraudster, a vandal, a blackmailer, and many others. Are we to imagine that a person is not ethically blameworthy, just because his or her actions to not fit into one of these categories? If I stand idly by an watch a stranger down, that doesn't make me a "murderer". Indeed, unless I brought about the events that led to the drowning, or I'd put myself in a situation where I was responsible for that person's safety, I'm not guilty of any crime at all.

The fact that I can't be labeled a "murderer" does not make my actions ethical. Similarly, the fact that I can't be labeled a "thief" does not make my media piracy ethical. The ethicality, or otherwise, of an action does not depend on the linguistic labels we assign to it. It's the other way around -- we create these labels to make it easier to discuss our ethical obligations, not to be bound by them.

The low moral status of media piracy turns, if it turns on anything, on the implications that the activity has for the livelihoods of people involved in the media industry. In the western world we maintain a notion of "intellectual property" because people don't -- usually can't -- work for nothing. Although it may be true that piracy is like finding your car is still there in the morning, it's like finding it with a huge scratch in the paintwork.

[ Last updated Tue 22 Feb 19:28:25 GMT 2022 ]