Is file sharing unethical?

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Jul-Aug 2009

There is an argument that disruptive technologies, while they may have all sorts of negative effects, usually end up being more inclusive than the technologies they replace. The printing press, for example, concentrated huge power in the hands of those that could afford the technology. But in the long term it led to mass literacy and learning. Not everyone thought that putting learning in the hands of the masses was a good idea. In the days when bibles were equipped with locks, literature and learning were reserved for the elite. Now it is seen as a right, something that should be available to everyone, albeit for a price.

The internet is a profoundly disruptive technology in the same mould. Now the ability to disseminate information is no longer restricted to a small elite. Perhaps in years to come we will regard the idea that information and learning should command a price as outdated as we now think it was to lock bibles.

Digital technology allows perfect and limitless copies to be made of music, video, books and other forms of “intellectual property”. The internet makes it easy to share. This – file sharing – is often described as “piracy”, as unethical behaviour.
Traditionally property has been something that has a value because it is not in limitless supply. If I pinch your ice cream, you no longer have an ice cream. But if I copy your digital files, you still have them. Ironically the people most criticised for piracy are not the people who copy from others and hence benefit, but the people who make content they have paid for available for others to share, arguably a cooperative rather than a selfish act. It is sometimes said that the pirates’ flag the “jolly roger “is so called because originally it was the red flag, flown by sailors who had mutinied and taken over their ships.

Today’s big content businesses – the record companies and publishers – have been built on the idea that a lot of money (capital) is needed to reproduce the content and get it to the people who want to buy it. Because it removes this barrier, the new technology is very disruptive to these businesses and they are among the most vocal in trying to stop file sharing. Thus the French government has introduced a “three strikes and you’re out” law that will compel ISPs to ban users who continue sharing copyright material after having been warned. An argument much used is that file sharing is an act of theft from the people – such as musicians, authors – who created the content. And yet no one is poorer unless the people sharing get something for free they would otherwise have paid for, very often not the case. Perhaps there are other, better ways for people to be paid for the creative work they do that do not involve the idea of intellectual property. A similar problem – how to earn money for creating content – is faced by newspapers and journals (including Ethical Consumer). But stopping file sharing won’t help them because they are threatened instead by the availability on the internet of multiple sources of information in one place, often for free.

So perhaps, rather than being unethical, file sharing is just the inevitable result of a disruptive technology. Perhaps the ethical thing to do is to find and join in with new sustainable ways to reward creativity and share its benefits.