On Philosophy

June 20, 2006

The Philosophy of File Sharing

Filed under: Ethics,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 12:59 am

The media likes to tell us that file sharing is unethical. Is it really unethical or is it just not in the best interests of large companies?

A common argument against file sharing is that it is theft. This is based on the assumption that the data being shared is the property of the company, and thus to take it without paying for it is wrong. However the assumption that data can be property has no logical foundation. The reason that property is considered meaningful in an ethical context comes from the constraints of finite physical resources. It is wrong to steal not because of some magical power of “property”, but because to take property from someone is to deprive that person of it. When something can be replenished with no effort then although a person may claim that it is their “property” there is nothing wrong with taking it. For example if you are on a raft in the middle of an ocean then taking someone’s private supply of salt water is not an unethical act. Likewise, if we all possessed replicators, able to make anything we wanted, then the idea of property would disappear almost completely. Why would you feel moral outrage if someone took your chair when, at the press of a button, you could have an unlimited number of replacements? In such a society only objects with sentimental value would be considered valuable, and ethically wrong to take. There is nothing wrong with stealing data then, because to copy data is to deprive its owner of nothing. Of course I should mention here that in some cases data “theft” could be considered unethical, for example if that data contains secrets, it is just that these situations don’t occur as part of file sharing. We would consider “stealing” data that contains secrets wrong not because copying the data itself that is unethical, but because copying it deprives its owner of the secret (as it is no longer a secret after you share their data around). You might be able to make the case that stealing secrets could be considered ethical, so long as you didn’t share them with others, but that is definitely a topic for another time.

So then, given that you can’t “steal” data are there any other reasons why file sharing might be unethical? As far as I know the only other possible reason that this might be so is that file sharing reduces the corporation’s opportunity for profits (in the sense that they no longer have the opportunity to sell their product to someone who has already downloaded the music). To examine this claim I will need to describe exactly by what standards I hold an action to be ethical. Some time ago I proposed the principle “When you take you must give back something of greater or equal value” (see here), and it is under this principle that I will judge the morality of lost opportunities here. It is not immediately obvious how this principle applies to opportunities (if it was I would have written on something else instead). If I deprive someone of an opportunity have I taken something from him or her? For example consider applying for a job. Clearly only one person can get the job. If you get it then you have taken away the opportunity for the other applicants to get the job. Are you then under some kind of ethical obligation to those other applicants? Such an idea seems ridiculous, and rightfully so. You might argue from this that an opportunity is without value, and hence you owe them nothing. However consider a slightly different case of lost opportunities; a system in which certain people are denied the opportunity to have any jobs altogether. It seems just as clear in this case that the opportunity must be worth something; clearly people who are denied the opportunity to ever have a job have lost something of significant value.

Your reaction to this might be to assume that the principle I have been advocating is missing something, perhaps an appeal to justice of some sort. Although this may be true let’s not give up simplicity so easily. An examination of the cases presented above reveals an important difference between them: in the case where a person is denied a single job because you have successfully applied for it the cost to that person is not all the pay they could have made. In fact we might argue that the cost to them is really very low, because they have many other opportunities to find a job. If there were no other jobs (say there was a labor shortage) we would still be able to defend the idea that your receiving of the job doesn’t incur an ethical obligation. Clearly someone had to get the job, and assuming that everyone is equally deserving of happiness, the company should hire the best person for the job. In this case to higher a less qualified person would imply that that person would have an obligation to the company (since he or she is giving them less in return for their salary than the best applicant could have). Thus the best person really has not taken anything away from the other candidates even in this situation, since although they would have received a definite benefit from having the job they would have also incurred a moral obligation towards the company, an obligation that does not exist for the best applicant.

When we analyze the case where a group of people is denied a job we see that this practice cannot similarly be justified. To these people the cost is not the same as if they were rejected for a sequence of positions, because in the analysis above we assumed that the cost of the lost opportunity was low since there were many more in the future. We can’t justify this practice in a labor shortage either, unless the people that are being denied opportunity to have a job are simply the worst workers (unlikely).

Now we can return to our topic of file sharing and examine if people who download music really owe anything to the record label for the lost opportunity of the sale. For the sake of argument here I will assume that the person who downloaded the songs really would have bought them, although this is not necessarily the case. Even in this case file sharing is much more like a job opportunity lost to another candidate (or a product sale lost because a customer bought it from another company) than it is to a complete loss of opportunity due to an unfair law. Yes the company cannot sell their product to that one person, but there is nothing stopping them from selling it to someone else. And if sales drop in general they can always stop making it, or make less of it, no one is forcing them to make a product that no one wants to buy. Since this is the case the amount that the file sharer has taken from the company is next to nothing, and thus they owe the company nothing.

Since it isn’t the case that information can reasonably be considered property, nor can lost opportunities for profit be considered something taken from the company, the ethical person is under no compulsion not to file share to their heart’s desire. Of course there may be legal restrictions, depending on where you live, and depending on your ethical standards you may feel compelled to obey they law, but that is a completely different consideration than the ethics of the act itself.



  1. Nice elaboration, but I thing the analogy is not completely correct. The number of positions hence job opportunities to fill is fixed (and dependent of the best interests of the hiring company). The number of sales (of a particular record) is not.
    I think the analogy would be better if I were in some way to “steal” the job opportunities (somehow destroying them, the same way possible sales are destroyed by file sharing). Suppose I was able to clone myself or to build (easily) robots which would (from the point of view of the hiring company) make no difference, do the work (and get the pay, which I use to make more robots).
    Important for the analogy to hold would be: I make no profit of this (since the robots and maintenance cost about the same money), and the algorithms for building my cheap robots are public domain and inpatentable. Everyone could do this.

    Of course, nobody is forced to apply for jobs (likewise, nobody is forced to make records which might not get sold).

    Weak points I ask the reader to forget in the thought experiment:
    – ethics of me constructing those “Turing machines” (which have to be good enough, so inavoidably resemble humans well enough) and abusing them as slaves;
    – effect on the economy – if nobody gets any job, nobody will have any money left to buy the companies’ products.

    The question is: would it be unethical to be one of the “clone makers” (who, again, do NOT profit from the system themselves), or better formulated “job opportunity destroyers” (clone making being only one possibility).

    My instincts say somehow it is. Lots of people would get poorer (having no jobs), and society does not get any better.
    Returning to the file sharing effects, they are similar, but instead of a giant group of people not getting any jobs, there is only a smaller portion of the economy (the entertainment industry) which gets heavily attacked. This will result in a smaller economy than what would be possible.

    The entertainment industry will not disappear completely but will find a more or less stable equilibrum. This would ultimately result in an amount of file sharing adapted to the supply, still much less than the actual supply. From a utilitarian viewpoint, the world would be better off without file sharing: the total amount of economy and “listening pleasure” (including freely obtained music) will probably diminish.

    Comment by yupie — June 25, 2006 @ 4:08 pm

  2. You asked if there are any other reasons that file sharing might be unethical. Let’s say I have taken 5 years to learn how to do something most people can’t do. I then write a book teaching the skill I have spent five years learning, and I make it available as a print book and an ebook. If you give my ebook away, you are reducing my ability to be compensated for my work. I believe that’s wrong. The copyright exists because I own the rights to determine how my intellectual property is distributed.

    I am sure movie producers would say the same. The amount of money each individual earns is not the factor. Profit is not a four letter word, no matter what our income. IMHO, anyway.

    Comment by LindaC — January 28, 2007 @ 2:25 pm

  3. Perhaps, if you accept that there is such a thing as intellectual property, which I do not, see: https://onphilosophy.wordpress.com/2007/01/03/intellectual-property/. Secondly just because you work hard at something doesn’t mean you have a right to be compensated for it. If you roll a boulder uphill all day don’t expect it to pay. Likewise if you create information alone don’t expect it to pay.

    Comment by Peter — January 28, 2007 @ 2:33 pm

  4. I do think there’s something to the social contract we have to account for here. If I put a lot of effort into something with the reasonable expectation that society will profit from it and make it worth my time, then we shouldn’t break that expectation lightly. In other words, it might be OK to do away with intellectual property someday, but if we did it overnight tomorrow, it would leave a lot of people in the lurch, because they’re dependent on the profits they can expect from it. So, if we do decide to change the laws, we should have the new rules phase in over time, so that people know the rules at hand ahead of time.

    Comment by Carl — January 28, 2007 @ 3:05 pm

  5. For one thing that is not how captialism works. You might spend years working on a product, but there is no gaurentee that someone else won’t come out with a version of the same thing before you do and steal all your profits. There are no gaurentees that your effort won’t be wasted, nor should there be. Secondly I’m not a big fan of the social contract as a tool for reasoning about ethics (I’m a consequentialist not a contractualist).

    Comment by Peter — January 28, 2007 @ 3:10 pm

  6. I’m just saying, cut people some slack. Don’t take away their source of income so fast that they can’t adapt. That’s all.

    Comment by Carl — January 28, 2007 @ 3:42 pm

  7. If music companies never fired anyone (taking away their source of income without much notice) I might have some sympathy. Serious response: companies based on bad business models go under all the time, that’s just how capitalism works.

    Comment by Peter — January 28, 2007 @ 3:45 pm

  8. Very true that in a capitalist society, I could work on a product only to have someone else release the same thing before me. If I buy seeds and plant a garden, and sell the vegetables, that’s capitalism. If I buy seeds and plant a garden, and everyone else gets to eat the vegetables for free, that’s not capitalism, it’s socialism.

    While working hard at something might *not* mean I will be compensated for it… but if I work hard at something and you don’t help at all – doesn’t mean *you* have a right to it, either. Not unless I give you that right. My work is still my work.

    Comment by LindaC — January 28, 2007 @ 8:30 pm

  9. Again, your argument is based on the premise that you can own an idea or information, and that is not a premise I would accept. Just because you work hard to discover something doesn’t give you ownership (ex: if I discover a short proof of Fermat’s last theorem I don’t own the proof). Again, I would point you to my post on intellectual property.

    Comment by Peter — January 28, 2007 @ 8:43 pm

  10. I did read your article on intellectual property rights. It starts with a flawed premise and goes downhill from there.

    1) In it, you say: “Intellectual property rights grants someone an effective monopoly over the idea.

    That is incorrect. Intellectual property rights do not grant monopoly on an *idea.* Let’s pretend I spend 20 years in marketing. (I have) And let’s pretend I decide to write a book about marketing. I am not being granted an effective monopoly over the idea of marketing. Or of writing a book. Or even of the ideas I write about. Intellectual property rights give me ownership of MY words in the specific order I type them.

    2) You state that “Artists have always created great art, even before it was a commercial endeavor

    Artists have been “commissioned” to do artwork for centuries. The term ‘commissioned’ means for pay. Look at the New York Times bestseller list. Do you think those people would be writing books if they didn’t earn an income from them? If copyright and intellectual property rights didn’t exist, how would you propose to feed the world as we sit around creating wonderful things to hand out without financial compensation?

    Comment by LindaC — January 28, 2007 @ 9:51 pm

  11. 1. Your words, even in a particular order, are just information. Do you really think it makes sense to say that you own a particular order of words? I don’t think so, any more than it makes sense to own a particular number (since every order of words could be mapped to a number). Of course you can simply insist that you do own the order itself, but to do so would seemingly be to embrace a very confused Platonism.

    2. I didn’t mean say the artists weren’t paid, I meant that the people commissioning the art weren’t making any money off the art itself. And do you think that no one writes because they simply want to write? Explain my blog then. Secondly, there are plenty of other ways to reward people for creating new ideas things besides giving them “ownership” over those ideas (in fact I think tomorrow’s post covers that).

    Comment by Peter — January 29, 2007 @ 12:25 am

  12. 1) Yes, I do believe that I own a particular “order” of words. And mapping them to a number doesn’t cut it, because if I gave you a number, the probability of reverse engineering the number to return my specific order of words is miniscule. Thus, whether or not you can map to a number is not confused Platonism, but a moot point – at best.

    2) Yes, lots of people write without financial compensation. I blog, too. My blog is free. My copywriting services are not. When words come out my my head, I get to decide whether I give them away or charge for them. So do you. See?

    Would you like me to go away? Or are you enjoying the debate? lol

    Comment by LindaC — January 29, 2007 @ 11:37 am

  13. 1) Not at all: here’s how you perform the map. First we give each letter a number 1-24. Then we give each word a unique number by taking the number that results from multiplying the results oof raising the first n primes to the value of the nth letter. For example the word “bat” = 2^2*3^1*5^20. Then we take the number of each word and convert a setance composed of those words into a number in the same manner, result of multiplying the first n primes raised to the value of the nth word. And we can get a number for a sequence of sentances in the same manner. And each of these numbers is unique and can be turned back into setances -> words -> letters via the same process in reverse (taking the prime factorization, ect). So you can map all sentances and sequences of sentances to numbers and numbers to sequences of sentances. In fact this is a key part of Godel’s proof, but I digress. In any case if you own the order than you are asserting ownership of the unique number it maps to which is ludicrous.

    Secondly when your words are stored in the computer they are stored as one gigantically large number, again, which the computer is turning back into words on the screen. Do you own that number? If not you shouldn’t be mad when people share your files because all they are sharing are some really large numbers.

    2) No I don’t see. Just because you might be able to charge for something under some levels of technology (no easy way to share large numbers) doesn’t mean you automatically have the right to charge for it at all levels of technology.

    Comment by Peter — January 29, 2007 @ 1:31 pm

  14. Copyright exists, automatically and immediately, when an original work has been fixed in a tangible medium as long as the author is a citizen of a Berne Convention country, a Universal Copyright Convention country, or a country that is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This covers citizens of USA, Canada, Australia, the UK – many, many other countries.

    Copyright is not limited to the author’s country… The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has adopted two treaties (the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty) that address international copyright protection in the digital world.

    Comment by LindaC — January 29, 2007 @ 3:01 pm

  15. Just because something is a law doesn’t mean it is ethical or ethically justified, I hope that is obvious. And since this is a philosophy blog, not a law blog, I am concerned only with the ethics of filesharing, not the legality. In fact I explicitly made note of this in the final sentance of this very post: “Of course there may be legal restrictions, depending on where you live, and depending on your ethical standards you may feel compelled to obey they law, but that is a completely different consideration than the ethics of the act itself.”

    Comment by Peter — January 29, 2007 @ 3:05 pm

  16. Which is more ethical, we ponder;

    1) To take & distribute the work of another person without permission to do so.
    2) To respect the wishes of the other person in regard to use & distribution of their work.

    ‘Twas an interesting chat, but I shan’t drag it out. I’ll opt for respecting the other person’s wishes every time. To me, that’s the ethically and morally correct choice.

    Comment by LindaC — January 29, 2007 @ 10:32 pm

  17. Ah, again with the building of the conclusion into the premise, but whatever.

    Comment by Peter — January 29, 2007 @ 11:07 pm

  18. Hello, If I where to write a book then it would be a particular sequence of words. It would be that sequence of words that I would consider to be “my” creation and property, not a number derived from encoding my words. If the number derived is the same thing as or equivalent to the book, then that would mean that there is no meaningful difference between language/communication and mathematics. Everything can be represented mathematically, including you yourself (though perhaps not your self/consciousness?), but that does not mean that you are no more than a number. If I gave each of your electrons, atoms etc a number and then processed these numbers mathematically to produce a single number, would your body “be” that un-ownable number and would you thus be unable to own even your own body?

    Comment by Jason — June 8, 2007 @ 3:56 pm

  19. “no meaningful difference between language/communication and mathematics” Indeed there isn’t, any abstraction, such as language/meaning, can be seen as an obsure way of doing mathematics, if that is convenient. To insist that it can’t be is like to insist that you can’t say that same thing in different languages. Now the reason I own my body, or any phisical thing, is because we cannot duplicate such things without large amounts of energy (notice: I don’t own the mathematical representation of my body or the information my body encodes). Thus without protection of property rights there are various unapplealing economic consequences and social problems. However, this is not the case for information by itself which can be copied at a cost that is as close to 0 as you like (basically the cost of the electricity required to run the computer), which is what is shared in the case of file sharing, and thus the same rules do not apply, nor can a meaningul analogy be drawn between the two.

    Comment by Peter — June 8, 2007 @ 4:07 pm

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