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.