The ethics of internet piracy

There’s a need to find a way to maximise the truly amazing potential of the internet, while properly rewarding creators.

Internet activists, together with Google, Facebook and other major online players, have carried the day, persuading the US Congress to shelve its anti-piracy legislation [GALLO/GETTY]

Princeton, NJ – Last year, I told a colleague that I would include internet ethics in a course that I was teaching. She suggested that I read a recently published anthology on computer ethics – and attached the entire volume to the email.

Should I have refused to read a pirated book? Was I receiving stolen goods, as advocates of stricter laws against internet piracy claim?

If I steal someone’s book the old-fashioned way, I have the book, and the original owner no longer does. I am better off, but they are worse off. When people use pirated books, the publisher and the author often are worse off – they lose earnings from selling the book.

But, if my colleague had not sent me the book, I would have borrowed the copy in my university’s library. I saved myself the time needed to do that, and it seems that no one was worse off. (Curiously, given the book’s subject matter, it is not for sale in digital form). In fact, others benefitted from my choice as well: the book remained on the library shelf, available to other users.

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On the other hand, if the book had not been on the shelf and those other users had asked library staff to recall or reserve it, the library might have noted the demand for the book and ordered a second copy. But there is only a small probability that my use of the book would have persuaded the library to buy another copy. And, in any case, we are now a long way from the standard cases of stealing.

I asked the 300 students in my ethics class which of them had not downloaded something from the internet, knowing or suspecting that they were violating copyright. Only five or six hands went up. Many of the rest thought that what they had done was wrong, but said that “everyone does it”. Others said that they would not have bought the music or book anyway, so they were not harming anyone. It did not seem that any of them were prepared to stop.

The case for enforcing copyright laws was strengthened by the details that emerged following the arrest in New Zealand last month of Kim Dotcom (born Kim Schmitz), founder of the website Megaupload (now closed down by the FBI). Megaupload allowed its 180 million registered users to upload and download movies, television shows and music, and some of the money earned by Dotcom (from advertising and subscriptions) was on display at his mansion near Auckland, where he kept his Rolls-Royce and other exotic cars.

Dotcom’s lawyer claims that Megaupload was merely providing storage for its subscribers’ files, and had no control over what they were storing. But Megaupload offered cash rewards to users who uploaded files that proved popular with other users.

Last month, the United States considered legislation that aimed at stopping internet piracy. The bills had been written at the urging of Hollywood studios and of the publishing and recording industries, which claim that violations of copyright on the internet cost 100,000 jobs in the US alone. Opponents said the proposed law would reach far beyond sites such as Megaupload, making Google and YouTube liable for copyright infringement – and allowing the government to block (without court authorisation) access to websites that it deemed to be facilitating copyright infringement.

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For the moment, internet activists, together with Google, Facebook and other major online players, have carried the day, persuading the US Congress to shelve its anti-piracy legislation. But the fight will continue: last month, the European Union and 22 member states signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which establishes international standards, and a new organisation to enforce intellectual-property rights. The agreement has already been signed by Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and the US. Now it must be ratified by, among others, the European Parliament.

I am an author, as well as a reader. One marvel of the internet is that some of my older works, long out of print, are now far more widely available than they ever were before – in pirated versions. Of course, I am more fortunate than many authors or creative artists, because my academic salary means that I am not forced to rely on royalties to feed my family. Nevertheless, it isn’t hard to find better purposes for my royalty earnings than Kim Dotcom’s environmentally damaging lifestyle. We need to find a way to maximise the truly amazing potential of the internet, while properly rewarding creators.

Australia, Canada, Israel, New Zealand and many European countries now have a public lending right, designed to compensate authors and publishers for the loss of sales caused by the presence of their books in public libraries. We need something similar for the internet. A user fee could pay for it, and, if the fee were low enough, the incentive to use pirated copies would diminish. Couple that with law enforcement against the mega-abusing websites, and the problem might be soluble. Otherwise, most creative people will need to earn a living doing something else, and we will all be the losers.

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Practical Ethics, One World, and most recently, The Life You Can Save.

A version of this article was first published on Project Syndicate.