Stainless steal

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Nov-Dec 2009

Among the various meanings and nuances it gives the word “ethical”, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary includes “morally correct, honourable". So, while ethical consumerism is a political movement, concerned with influencing corporations and governments to observe and enforce ethical standards, there is also an implied moral choice by the individual consumer. It’s as if to say that being an ethical consumer is in itself doing the right thing, whether or not it influences corporations and governments to do the right thing.

In the world of the internet, this division between consumers behaving ethically and producer (corporations) behaving unethically has been blurred. This has come about because of the ease of making perfect and limitless digital copies of “content” – music, films and publications. Now it is big corporations that accuse individual consumers of being unethical when they share files over the internet. It is unethical they say because it is a form of theft, taking something that does not belong to you. It has even been labelled “piracy”, otherwise a very serious and usually violent crime. But while it may be a form of theft, filesharing is different from theft as we have understood it in the past. When someone steals something that normally means that someone else loses it. If I take your music CD, you no longer have it, and you (presumably) are not happy about this because there would be a cost to you in replacing it. But if you share the music files with me over the internet, you still keep the copies for yourself.  There is a cost to you for the bandwidth that was used to copy the files, but it is a cost you have agreed to bear. Indeed, someone who shares all their music and video files on the net – regarded as a principal villain by the copyright holding corporations – is someone who incurs considerable costs so that other people can benefit from what they have. In any other circumstance what would be thought of as highly ethical behaviour. You could even argue that filesharing is an act of solidarity. The rights and wrongs are even less clear when the content is educational: is it wrong for schools in developing countries to make copies of material they otherwise could not afford?

Filesharing is sometimes condemned as being a theft from the originator of the content – the musician or the author – because they do not receive a royalty when a file is copied. The problem with this argument is that it means it is only a theft if they do receive a royalty when the file is not copied. It is true that a way is needed to pay for people to produce valued content. This is a problem facing the whole of the media and publication industries, and affects organisations like Ethical Consumer itself. That is why Rupert Murdoch is trying to persuade his competitors to start charging for news content on the net, so that he can do the same. But the idea of giving originators a royalty for each item – book or CD – is difficult to sustain when the act of making a copy is almost free. The problem is not that each individual act of filesharing is a theft but that the phenomenon of filesharing has broken the current mechanism for rewarding creativity and a new way is needed. Big corporations that point the finger at filesharers and call them unethical might do better to spend more time on this, while taking a closer look at the ethical and environmental impact of their own actions.