There’s a raging copyright debate between the entrenched forces of the music and movie industries and a raft of folks who either for market or political reasons want far more freedom in how a user can interact with content. In “Steal This Essay 4: Are We Just Rationalizing Theft?”, I covered some of the arguments against treating unauthorized use of a pure public good like content as theft.
(Separately, I also mention that the recording industry routinely refers to copying music as piracy, trivializing a real crime in which hundreds of people are killed every year on the high seas. Piracy on the seas is violent as a direct result of the fact that physical goods are rival.)
Tim O’Reilly makes a fascinating argument that “piracy is progressive taxation” and that “obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy”. However, I wonder whether his arguments aren’t too focused on “rationalizing theft”.
I think that although morality is almost always linked to economics (generally in terms of torts), they are hardly one and the same. Just because I may not be hurting (committing a tort against) an artist whose music I download (if I would never have otherwise bought their CD), it doesn’t necessarily make it OK if I know (or suspect) that the artist would not want me to use her work in this way.
Instead, I assume a simple cop out in “Steal This Essay 1: Content Is a Pure Public Good”, by taking a “hard technology determinist viewpoint”. That is, whatever the individual moral thing to do might be, if neither prevention nor punishment can stop the behavior (as I argue in “Steal This Essay 2: Why Encryption Doesn’t Help”), then that behavior is going to proliferate and we better figure out how to deal with it.
At the end of the day, I think we need to assume that the vast majority of college students (and almost everyone else) doesn’t care about the morality of using Gnutella, and figure out a system by which artists can be compensated (which is what I discuss, somewhat pessimistically, in “Steal This Essay 3: How to Finance Content Creation”).