Thu, Feb 16, 2012 - Page 9 News List

The ethics of Internet piracy

Thanks to the Internet, everybody seems to be pirating work these days. However, the introduction of a sort of public lending right on the Internet, with low fees, could help reduce piracy

By Peter Singer

Illustration: Mountain People

Last year, I told a colleague that I would include Internet ethics in a course that I was teaching. She suggested that I read a recently published anthology on computer ethics — and attached the entire volume to the e-mail.

Should I have refused to read a pirated book? Was I receiving stolen goods, as advocates of stricter laws against Internet piracy claim?

If I steal someone’s book the old-fashioned way, I have the book and the original owner no longer does. I am better off, but she is worse off. When people use pirated books, the publisher and the author often are worse off — they lose earnings from selling the book.

However, if my colleague had not sent me the book, I would have borrowed the copy in my university’s library. I saved myself the time needed to do that and it seems that no one was worse off. (Curiously, given the book’s subject matter, it is not for sale in digital form). In fact, others benefited from my choice as well: The book remained on the library shelf, available to other users.

On the other hand, if the book had not been on the shelf and those other users had asked library staff to recall or reserve it, the library might have noted the demand for the book and ordered a second copy. However, there is only a small probability that my use of the book would have persuaded the library to buy another copy. And, in any case, we are now a long way from the standard cases of stealing.

I asked the 300 students in my ethics class which of them had not downloaded something from the Internet, knowing or suspecting that they were violating copyright. Only five or six hands went up. Many of the rest thought that what they had done was wrong, but said that “everyone does it.” Others said that they would not have bought the music or book anyway, so they were not harming anyone. It did not seem that any of them were prepared to stop.

The case for enforcing copyright laws was strengthened by the details that emerged following the arrest in New Zealand last month of Kim Dotcom (born Kim Schmitz), founder of the Web site Megaupload (now closed down by the FBI). Megaupload allowed its 180 million registered users to upload and download movies, television shows and music and some of the money earned by Dotcom (from advertising and subscriptions) was on display at his mansion near Auckland, where he kept his Rolls-Royce and other exotic cars.

Dotcom’s lawyer claims that Megaupload was merely providing storage for its subscribers’ files and had no control over what they were storing. However, Megaupload offered cash rewards to users who uploaded files that proved popular with other users.

Last month, the US considered legislation aimed at stopping Internet piracy. The bills had been written at the urging of Hollywood studios and the publishing and recording industries, which claim that violations of copyright on the Internet cost the US 100,000 jobs. Opponents said the proposed law would reach far beyond sites like Megaupload, making Google and YouTube liable for copyright infringement — and allowing the government to block (without court authorization) access to Web sites that it deemed to be facilitating copyright infringement.

For the moment, Internet activists, together with Google, Facebook and other major online players, have carried the day, persuading the US Congress to shelve its anti-piracy legislation. However, the fight will continue: Last month, the EU and 22 member states signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which establishes international standards and a new organization to enforce intellectual-property rights. The agreement has already been signed by Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and the US. Now it must be ratified by, among others, the European Parliament.

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