On Philosophy

December 4, 2006

The Ethics of File Sharing (2)

Filed under: Ethics,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 1:03 am

File sharing is considered by many to be an ethical grey area. It clearly isn’t theft, as theft involves depriving someone of property (although it would seem that the record companies are doing their best to redefine the word). The only argument against file sharing that needs to really be taken seriously (in regards to its ethical, not legal, status) is whether causing the record companies to lose sales, hence reducing their profits, is ethically wrong.

In other places I have argued that how an action impacts society should guide our ethical judgments about it. Thus we regard theft as wrong because if we as a society condoned theft then ownership would be meaningless. And without ownership people aren’t motivated to create the infrastructure and developments that give us the high quality of life we enjoy now. File sharing too can be analyzed in this fashion, we simply have to ask whether a society in which file sharing was allowed would be better or worse than one without it.

It should be obvious that, by these standards, protecting someone’s sales is, in general, not an ethical obligation. In fact allowing someone’s actions to reduce the profits of another is the foundation of capitalism. If you own the only source of diamonds then you can like a monopoly, selling a small amount of your product at high prices. You will make a lot of money, but your business won’t operate at the level that is optimal for society. But if I open a diamond mine then we will be in competition. Your sales will be reduced as a result, and your profits even more so (since you can no longer price your product as if you were a monopoly), but in the end there is a net benefit to society (this is a well established fact).

So what we really need to consider is if file sharing, as an individual case, is good or bad for society, since we have seen that in at least some cases causing a company to lose sales, and reduce its profits, is good for society. It is not clear to me that if file sharing was accepted that the record companies would go under, after all some people would still want to buy CDs and other band merchandise. Someone might even set up a CD rental business like Netflix, which would give people the convenience of having the physical CD, but at a fraction of the cost*. But let us consider the “worst” case, in which the record companies do go under. Is this a bad or a good thing?

Certainly for the people who lose their jobs it would be a bad thing, but I would expect that most of them wouldn’t have too many problems finding new ones; unemployment simply isn’t that high, and most of the people working for the record labels are well educated. Besides that the only possible harm to society that I think might result would be a reduction in new music being produced. Certainly the record labels portray themselves as being integral to the production of music (by funding it), and I will assume that music, like artistic endeavors in general, has value to society.

Certainly a world without Mozart or Bach would be a poor world to live in. But wait, Mozart and Bach made their music without the support (or even existence) of any kind of record company! Like the painters and sculptors of their time, they were supported by wealthy patrons. I suppose that in this modern era it might be possible that such a system wouldn’t work, but our modern painters and sculptors seem to get along just fine (ok, well most of them have to supplement their income with other jobs, but they still are able to produce great art). So if the record companies collapsed I suspect that music would simply go back to being made in this way. That means that there would certainly be far fewer musicians than there are today, but quantity doesn’t always mean quality. Maybe we would only have one pop band. In fact I think that such a system might even encourage higher quality music, since the musicians would have to fight harder to get patrons.

Thus I conclude that file sharing can’t be considered ethically wrong. In fact the collapse of the music industry (if that is really the consequence of file sharing) might even be a good thing, turning art back into art instead of a commodity. Of course file sharing is still against the law, at least in some places, and so for legal reasons I can’t encourage you to engage in such behavior. And you might have an ethical obligation to follow the law, even if the law doesn’t have an ethical basis (a discussion which I won’t enter into here).

* If you are inspired by this to start such a service it is only fair to give me some stock.


  1. The popular music we listen to now is largely a result of the enviornment of the record industry rewarding a few massively and excluding most local music. Your example of Bach and Mozart is irrelevant as this music still fails to make money and continues to depend on the patronage of wealth; the record industry is centered around popular music. As the record industry collapses music will be produced and spread through new avenues and will change music again perhaps creating a more diverse enviornment with fewer of the chokepoints which are charachteristics of the record industry. I imagine that there will be countless more musicians not fewer as you imagine. Anyone with access to the internet can have an international presence if the net remains neutral.

    I can see no ethical issue at all just the anguish of the latest buggy whip industry on its last legs.

    Comment by Robert Bate — December 6, 2006 @ 11:23 am

  2. I agree with these conclusions, but file sharing is a lot bigger than the music industry. Things like movies, TV shows, books, and video games involve an investment to create some form of art and probably should be treated the same as sharing music. The implications are fairly big.

    Comment by Marmalade — December 7, 2006 @ 10:57 am

  3. Very convenient for those who don’t like to pay.
    I would love to be able to believe the above, but my conscience tells me otherwise.
    When someone buys a CD there is an implicit agreement between him/her and the company that sold him/her the CD – namely that she/he is purchasing the right for to play the music contained therein, not the right to distribute that music to others. To break that implicit agreement is unethical. To take advantage of the fact that someone else broke that agreement (by receiving the “goods”) is also unethical.

    Comment by Paul Andrews — January 1, 2007 @ 11:53 pm

  4. By reading my blog you have entered into an implicit agreement not to diagree with me. Just because someone would like there to be such an agreement (the labels) doesn’t mean that one actually exists, not unless the purchaser specifically signs something to give away their rights do do whatever they want with the things they buy. Next you’ll be telling me I can’t make a photo of a painting or a poster I own.

    Comment by Peter — January 2, 2007 @ 12:05 am

  5. Downloading music may not be considered theft, but it is stealing because stealing is taking someone’s property without their permission and music is someone’s intellectual property. Stealing is most definitely unethical.

    I do think you make some good points though.

    I believe that if the record companies did go down, the internet could be the medium where artists can be heard and become famous. We may be better off without the record companies.

    Comment by James — February 4, 2007 @ 8:16 pm

  6. Grrr. Oh boy I sure do love arguing for a conclusion by builiding it into the premises without justification. i.e. : “but it is stealing because stealing is taking someone’s property without their permission and music is someone’s intellectual property”. Only if you accept that such a thing as intellectual property exists, which I don’t, and I’m not alone in that. (https://onphilosophy.wordpress.com/2007/01/03/intellectual-property/) Sorry for the sarcasm, but everyone who argues against filesharing says the exact same thing. “It’s intellectual property!” which I find questionable. And I have yet to see anyone argue that intellectual property exists without begging the question (meaning that they assume it, or something like it, exists in their argument for that very thing).

    Comment by Peter — February 4, 2007 @ 8:28 pm

  7. Illegally downloading songs isn’t “stealing,” because it doesn’t derive the copyright holder of the ability to use their copyright in other situations. If you steal a physical object from me, I can’t use it all, whereas if you “steal” a song from me, I can still sell it to someone else. On the other hand, the existence of my song on P2P sites does drive down the amount that I can charge for it, since there is a near perfect substitute available at a lower cost (free). So, it does do me some economic damage, at least theoretically.

    Personally, I find the “is-it-or-isn’t-it-stealing” argument a bit beside the point. In formal speech, let’s not muddy up our terminology more than we need to. Say “copyright infringement” not “stealing.” In informal speech, it’s fine to use similar enough terms to get our meaning across. Since “stealing” is shorter than “infringement,” say that. But don’t argue that the two things are the same when there are clear disanalogies between them.

    Comment by Carl — February 4, 2007 @ 8:30 pm

  8. Carl, I officially put you in charge of responding to anyone who says “copyright infrigement is stealing because…” from this point forward. Feel free to copyright infringe on your own comment.

    Comment by Peter — February 4, 2007 @ 8:34 pm

  9. I’m just saying I don’t think that downloading music without permission is 100% right. If I designed something and got it copyrighted, I wouldn’t like someone else copying my idea without my permission. Maybe it’s because of the society I grew up in, but aren’t ethics the rules of society anyway? I really don’t want to argue about the definitions of words because I even admit, when it comes to the English language, I am an idiot.

    I understand now why you think downloading music isn’t “stealing” or whatever it may be called. I respect your ideas.

    Comment by James — February 25, 2007 @ 4:31 pm

  10. Wait, let me change my mind a bit. I understand your thoughts of “intellectual property.” Everything I know of today was someone else’s idea from the past getting past on to me. It’s hard for me to put all my thoughts into words but I’m trying my best… The thought of holding a “monopoly” over an idea is preposterous. This is exactly why I don’t like the religion of scientology where you have to pay to believe what they believe. The way I see it, though, is ethics is what a society thinks is right and wrong. The government has set up all these laws to fight against copyright-infringement and we most of us have grown up to believe it’s wrong to copy other’s ideas.

    So, though I agree that copying music is ok because enforcing all “intellectual property” would hinder our society, I still would have to argue that our society still thinks it’s wrong to copy others’ work and therefore it’s unethical to do so. On the other hand, if I think “intellectual property” hinders our society, could that be considered unethical too? Or am I not even getting the point?

    Something else about your post got me thinking too. Isn’t doing something that makes someone else lose their job considered unethical? Although I know that with the invention of the computer, those who made typwriters went out of business. Making a computer can’t be seen as unethical… Maybe my problem is that I don’t understand what ethics really is.

    I would really like to hear of what you think about this. I don’t want to be passed on to someone else :-P (although anyone else’s thoughts are appreciated as well).

    Comment by James — February 26, 2007 @ 8:14 am

  11. I think that it is a mistake to conflate the rules of society with what is ethically right and wrong. My society has the death penalty, and most people seem to approve of it, but that doesn’t mean I have to think that killing people is ethically right for any reason. Of course exactly what you can and can’t do depends on how in fact you do define ethics. I define it as what is objectively best for society (vs. what society wants) and so replacing typewriters with computers is ethical because on the whole it is good for society even thought it puts some people out of business. And it would still be good for society even if people were opposed to this replacement and passed a law against computers.

    Comment by Peter — February 26, 2007 @ 10:41 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: