A moral divide?

In the New York Times, David Pogue argues that there is a generational divide in copyright morality. His basis is informal polls of his audience. Turns out few people think doing this is ‘wrong’:

“I *meant* to record an HBO movie, but my recorder malfunctioned. But my buddy recorded it. Can I copy his DVD?”

But that amongst the college-aged none of them think this is ‘wrong’:

You want a movie or an album. You don’t want to pay for it. So you download it.

Pogue is aghast as he sees this last action as black and white even if other actions he polls have greater shades of grey. He concludes that copyright law has a problem and is wildly out of accord with the majority of the younger generation.

To be clear, we are not talking here about what is illegal but instead about whether someone should feel ‘guilty’ about an action. The presumption is that simply taking something from someone — in this case, money from copyright holders etc. — is wrongful. At the beginning of DVDs I purchase, young people are told that “you wouldn’t steal a handbag, why download a movie?”

The question is: is downloading a movie or album considered stealing in a moral sense? Let’s take the easy case. If, absent a download option, you were going to buy an album, then your action has denied the copyright holder revenue. Looks like stealing in that you have appropriated something (money) that others legally could have.

One way to rationalise this is that people see it as incomplete. The money might be returned in other — perceptively more efficient — ways such as purchases of merchandise, concert tickets and friends getting into an album. The copyright holder’s response is that what they have a right to is to determine not just how much money flows back to them but how it flows back to them. Legally that may be the case but morally it is not clear that that right is a good one. Indeed, even legally we have partially abandoned it with parallel import laws and restrictions on resale price maintenance.

But, of course, the issue Pogue is worried about is that people might think it is OK just not to pay for this stuff. They do not agree that a copyright holder has a moral right to determine how much money flows back to them. Indeed, they put stuff out there on the internet all of the time that others consumer for free; even though they could charge for it.

Let’s be clear, this view is not without precedent. On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David gets in trouble from putting rubbish in a neighbour’s bin. His neighbour argues that it is his bin and that only he has a right to determine how it is use. David counters that it is more convenient this time, for minor use, and he would be OK if his neighbour used his bin that same way. I think most people, of many generations, would with David’s morality on this one. But as a matter of principle there is little difference to the view on copyright.

To get to the heart of the issue, Pogue needed to ask young people this:

Do you think we should abandon copyright laws tomorrow even if it may mean less investment funds available for movies and music?

And compare it to their answer to this:

Do you think that only those who don’t have computers and internet access should be required to pay for music and movies?

An affirmative view to the former would give this a moral basis (although no comfort to copyright holders) while one to the latter would reveal moral dubiousness.

One thought on “A moral divide?”

  1. The Writers’ strike is a perfect example of why young folk are not attracted to buying digitally. It is obvious buying digitally is the way of the future but due to the lower publishing, packaging and transport costs for the unit of sale, consumers want to feel that the artists get a bigger slice of the pie, given the publishing companies have considerably less work to do as a result.

    Look at Valve Software’s ‘Steam’ distribution platform, it is rapidly expanding its catalougue of computer games for sale because gamers are confident more of the money goes to the game’s developers rather than to publishing companies like Electronic Arts or Activision.

    The big companies know online distribution is the next cash cow and sow are trying to keep as big a slice of the pie as possible, even though by its nature it eliminates the need for publishing companies at all.

    People smell a raw deal a mile away and vote with the broadband connections.


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