Reuben Binns

Researching Personal Data

Is ignoring adverts morally equivalent to digital piracy?

Is downloading copyright-infringing material morally wrong?

It’s a question which the more conscientious members of my generation have probably asked themselves at some point. My best answer to date is still an unsatisfying “Sometimes yes, sometimes no”. There are dozens of different ways of looking at it, and it really does just depend.

Those who believe it is wrong (and have given some thought to the justification of their belief), tend to settle on a couple of distinct arguments. For me, the most compelling is based on the idea that by engaging in piracy, you are undermining the creation of the very thing you enjoy. If you don’t pay anything for the content you consume – whether it is music, film or literature – then future works may not be created. Thus, the problem is that piracy is a kind of ‘free ride’ (indeed, this was the title of a recent book on the subject).

Now, clearly, there are several bones which one could pick here: if you wouldn’t have paid for the media anyway then consuming it illegally it makes no difference; so-called ‘piracy’ is often the basis for new creativity: and the funnel between copyright industry revenues and pure creative activity is hardly direct, so we are only morally obliged to pay a fraction of the current prices. But let’s go along with the ‘free-ride’ argument for now, as it seems to be one that most reasonable and outspoken critics of file-sharing turn to.

My question then, is this: if piracy is wrong because it is a kind of free-ride, is ignoring adverts when enjoying ad-supported media any different? How many of us avert our gaze from the banners beside our favourite news site or social media platform? How many people mute the TV during breaks in shows, skip sponsored videos on YouTube, or even use a browser plugin to block out all adverts from the web? The content we enjoy consuming from these spaces can only survive by allowing companies to effectively advertise their products and eventually get consumers to part with their cash. If we don’t even at least look at some of these ads, let alone click on them, aren’t we undermining the future creation of the very material we enjoy?

Of course, there are differences between an ad-supported vs paid business model. But if what makes digital piracy wrong is that it is free-riding, then this should generalise to any business model. If you want to ensure the future creation of content, then you have to play along with whatever it is that sustains that content. This is true whether that means paying for copyrighted media, or subjecting your eyeballs to the adverts that support it.

This conclusion, that ignoring adverts is wrong, may strike the reader as rather strange. How could something that we do every day, without even thinking, be morally wrong? At which point the habitual file-sharer says: ‘Exactly’. If you don’t see anything wrong with ignoring the adverts that sustain your free content, then you shouldn’t see anything wrong with file-sharers ignoring the copyright model that sustains their free content. Conversely, if you still think piracy is wrong, then you’d better start clicking on those ads once in a while.


3 responses to “Is ignoring adverts morally equivalent to digital piracy?

  1. Jan June 9, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Hi Reuben, interesting!

    I actually think there’s a bit of an analogy here. As George said in his comment on FB, there is a conventional difference in property rights – and the duties that come with them – but it’s not the property rights argument you’re discussing here. You could say that since we never agreed to stare at adverts, we have no duty to, and if the website fails, that’s tough; it should just move to a different financing model. You could say exactly the same about creative industries though.

    In practice, I wouldn’t worry too much though, because I don’t think all people are like us – automatically sceptical of adverts. The strange thing is, advertising networks put a lot of time and effort into making ads relevant to us. Even then, ads still never seem to be relevant to me. I can only assume that people like us (who might even have had some kind of anti-consumerist education where logos and branding were frowned up!) are a-typical. If ads were more regularly relevant to me there’s no reason why I shouldn’t pay them attention. I can only assume from the fact that it’s such a booming industry that most people behave differently.

    To be clear (though I’m sure you already realise this), most advertising is done on a cost-per-click basis. So it’s the publisher, not the advertiser, who generally accepts risk.

    Revenue = click-through-rate x number of impressions x cost of adverts

  2. Pingback: Advert! Avert! « Reuben Binns

  3. Ekendra September 24, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Reuben, really interesting article. I agree with the topic fully, this is digital era, and ignoring adverts is morally equivalent to digital piracy. But the conditions like revenue generating model of some really good business has been under risk because of low prolific and black hat websites.

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